Iran’s Missiles a Simmering Area of Disagreement in the Nuclear Talks

Patrick Goodenough | July 31, 2014 | 4:23am EDT
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An Iranian Defense Ministry image said to show the 2010 test-launch of a Fateh 110 short-range ballistic missile. Tehran subsequently test-fired newer versions of the missile. (AP Photo)

( – Fresh Iranian threats to provide more missiles for Palestinian terrorists to use against Israel come at a time when the U.S. and Russia remain at odds over whether a nuclear agreement now being negotiated with Tehran will cover its missiles program.

The Obama administration insists it must, but the absence of any explicit reference to the missiles in an interim deal sealed last November is causing headaches.

Testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman was asked once again about the failure to include an unambiguous reference to Iran’s missile program in the interim agreement reached with Iran in Geneva.

“Why did the interim agreement not explicitly require Iran to follow U.N. Security Council resolutions to stop its efforts to develop a nuclear-capable ballistic missile, which as we know they’re testing?” committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) asked Sherman, who is the lead U.S. negotiator in the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran.

In the past, Sherman has pointed out that the November “Joint Plan of Action” (JPOA) states that a final agreement now being negotiated will address applicable U.N. Security Council resolutions. And as those resolutions cite the ballistic missile threat, she says, that means Iran’s missiles will be covered by the final agreement.

(The JPOA offered Iran limited sanctions relief in exchange for limited curbs on its nuclear program for a six-month period while a final, comprehensive deal was being negotiated. The interim period was recently extended by four months, and is now due to expire in late November.)

“What we have said in this negotiation, what is under discussion, is that Iran must address all the provisions of U.N. Security Council resolutions,” Sherman told Royce. “And in [resolution] 1929 there’s a specific reference to any kind of delivery mechanism – long-range ballistic missile, for delivery of nuclear weapons.”

“So that has to be addressed in some way in this agreement,” she added. “And it is under discussion, but not yet resolved.”

Sherman did not elaborate about that lack of resolution, but Iran is not alone in objecting to missiles being covered in the comprehensive nuclear agreement.

Russia, a member of the P5+1 negotiating group, has stated flatly that missiles will not be covered – and has furthermore accused the U.S. of threatening the entire process by introducing an issue that was never meant to be covered.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the pro-Kremlin RT television station last April that as soon as the JPOA implementation period began “the Americans began to load it with new demands.”

“The missile program of Iranians was never part of the discussions, never,” he declared. “And it was not part of the deal signed in Geneva last November. But as the deal of November started to be implemented, the Americans threw in the missile proliferation problem which could have derailed the process.”

Since Lavrov made those comments already chilly relations between Moscow and Washington have become even more icy over the continuing Ukraine crisis.

The administration has long held up Moscow’s cooperation in the P5+1 Iran nuclear talks as one positive element in an otherwise strained relationship, but the chances of Russia moving towards the U.S. position on Iran’s missiles look slim: Moscow’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency in a report Wednesday underlined Lavrov’s view on the matter, citing the April RT interview.

U.S., allies under threat

The P5+1 negotiations are meant to allay the international community’s suspicions that Iran’s nuclear energy program is a front for developing a nuclear weapons capability. But if a final deal leaves Iran’s missile capability intact, critics say Tehran will continue to pose a threat to the region, U.S. forces in the region, Israel, Europe and the United States.

The U.S. intelligence community has warned that “Iran could develop and test an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015.”

When Sherman appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also on Tuesday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) raised the issue too.

“We have left completely untouched the missiles program that they have, that they continue to develop,” he told Sherman.

“They are developing a long-range rocket that would be able to reach the United States and other places in Europe. That’s what they’re developing and that’s what they’re headed towards. And there’s only one reason why you develop a rocket like that, and that’s to put a nuclear warhead on it.”

In a letter to President Obama a fortnight ago, Rubio and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) voiced concern about Iran’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) development.

“An Iran with a nuclear weapons capability represents a grave threat to the United States and our allies, and an effective delivery system is a key element of a nuclear weapons capability,” they wrote in the letter, which was also signed by another 26 GOP senators. “We believe the administration should not conclude any nuclear accord with Tehran without addressing the threat that Iranian ballistic missiles could pose to our nation.”

Hamas, Hezbollah

Concerns about Iran’s missile development are not limited to its efforts to develop ICBM capability. Its role in providing missiles and other weapons to Hamas also came up during Tuesday’s Senate hearing.

“Although Hamas creates many of its own rockets these days a lot of the original supply of those rockets came from Iran,” Sherman told the panel. “And so the security of Israel is not only tied to this nuclear agreement but it’s also tied to the horrific raining of rockets that are coming down on Israel today.”

Iran by its own admission is a source of many of the more sophisticated projectiles fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip before and during the current conflict.

That situation could worsen in the future: Amir Mousavi, a former advisor who remains close to the Iranian defense ministry, told a Lebanese television station on July 25 that the “arming of Gaza will be stepped up and strategic weapons will be introduced into the West Bank.”

According to a translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute, Mousavi observed that missiles in the West Bank would be closer to Israel’s main population centers than those launched from Gaza.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Friday came out in public support for Hamas in Gaza for the first time during the current conflict. The Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist group’s has yet to act on that pledge and launch attacks against northern Israel, as Hamas has requested.

Hezbollah’s sizable missile arsenal is also stocked largely by Iran.

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