(CNSNews.com) – The watering down of language in a U.N. Security Council resolution last July relating to Iran’s missile activity is raising awkward questions for the Obama administration as lawmakers seek answers about what they view as its “delayed and weak” response to a series of ballistic missile launches.
In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, three House Republicans wrote that “the international community is struggling to respond to Iran’s continued provocations, all because of language in U.N. Security Council resolution (UNSCR) 2231.”
Reps. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), and Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) recalled that Kerry himself assured Congress last year that the resolution – which constituted the international community’s endorsement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal – would allow the U.S. to respond to Iranian actions like missile launches.
But although the administration has imposed some modest unilateral sanctions designations in response to the launches, attempts to secure a unified Security Council response have run into opposition from Russia, which has cited the fact the resolution merely “called upon” Iran not to carry out specified missile activity. That is not a legal requirement, argues Moscow, a veto-wielding permanent council member.
In contrast to resolution 2231 having “called upon” Iran not to carry out launches of missiles “designed to be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead,” an earlier resolution – which has been replaced by 2231 – declared that Iran “shall not” undertake launches of missiles “capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has said he spent seven months painstakingly negotiating the wording of the missile-related text in resolution 2231. The wording that resulted from those efforts is now tying the Security Council’s hands.
The State Department, after initially saying reports of the most recent launches in early March would be a “violation” of resolution 2231, had to adjust its language days later, saying only that the Iranian actions were “inconsistent with” the resolution.
That same phrase was used in a recent letter criticizing the launches, sent by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power and European counterparts to the Security Council president.
In their letter to Kerry, Pompeo, Roskam and Zeldin said the administration’s decision to stop labeling the launches a “violation” of the resolution was “alarming.”
They also pointed to testimony Kerry gave to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last July, when he was challenged about the “shall not” versus “called upon” language in the resolutions.
“When selling the JCPOA, you assured Members of Congress in official testimony in July that ‘the exact same language … is in the agreement with respect to the launches’ and that Iran would still be ‘restrained from any … work on missiles.’”
In concluding, the three lawmakers expressed concern that the administration may be putting the nuclear deal ahead of national security.
“We are troubled by reports that the administration is stifling voices within its ranks for stronger action against Iran – putting the JCPOA and political legacy above the safety and security of the American people.”
They asked Kerry to respond, by May 1, to several questions relating to the launches, the issue of violation determination, and the administration’s strategy.
Pompeo is a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Roskam chairs the House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee. Zeldin is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and he and Pompeo are both Army veterans.
‘Very parsed and diplomatic language’
State Department spokesman Mark Toner acknowledged Monday that the phrase “inconsistent with” – as in, the missile launches are inconsistent with resolution 2231 – was “very parsed and diplomatic language.”
“It reflects the consensus that it took to reach agreement on how we would move forward in addressing some of our concerns about Iran’s behavior,” he told a daily press briefing.
Toner said it was important to bear in mind that the U.S. has not given up any ability to impose sanctions on Iran “when it acts in a way that we believe undermines regional stability.”
He said administration officials including Kerry had “made every effort in engaging with Congress to be as transparent as possible about what we were trying to achieve through the actual [nuclear] agreement but also the fact that we would retain every ability to continue to exert sanctions and pressure on Iran when we saw it exhibiting bad behavior.”
“You may retain the ability,” a reporter said. “I think what’s coming under question here is the willpower to do so. If you’re not even going to call a violation a ‘violation,’ but you’re going to call a violation something that’s ‘inconsistent with’ the law, then doesn’t that legitimately call into question your willpower to do the right thing?”
“Not at all,” replied Toner. “And I think you saw with the ballistic – the recent tests is that we actually did follow through and are taking action. And we’re going to continue to do that through the U.N. Security Council, but also unilaterally.”
The administration maintains that Iran is complying fully with the terms of the JCPOA, pointing out that restrictions on missile launches, while referred to in the JCPOA-endorsing resolution 2231, are not part of the nuclear deal itself.
Separately, lawmakers are troubled by reports that the administration is preparing to grant Iran indirect access to the U.S. financial system (by making it permissible for Iran to access U.S. dollars through selected foreign banks), despite assurances in the past that this would not happen under the JCPOA.