Senior State Official: Iran’s Missile Launches ‘Violated the Intent of’ UNSC Resolution

Patrick Goodenough | April 6, 2016 | 12:19am EDT
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Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon testifies at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Iran nuclear deal, on Tuesday, April 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

( – A senior State Department official told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday that in his view Iran’s recent ballistic missile launches “violated the intent of” a resolution passed by the U.N. Security Council last July.

The administration has come under fire for avoiding calling the launches a “violation” of U.N. Security Council resolution 2231, saying instead that the Iranian actions were “inconsistent with” the measure.

Critics attribute that reluctance to the administration having permitted watered-down language in the resolution, which “called on” Iran not to carry out launches of missiles – in contrast to an earlier resolution saying that Iran “shall not” launch missiles.

That distinction could make a difference between the Security Council acting in response to the launches or not, since Russia disputes that the resolution’s “called upon” language constitutes a legal prohibition on launches.

Asked by Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) whether he believes Iran’s action was a “violation” of resolution 2231, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon said, “from our point of view, U.N. Security Council resolution 2231 prohibits Iran from launching ballistic missiles.”

Shannon acknowledged that “in international parlance” there is a distinction between Iran being “called upon” not to carry out launches, and being told that it “shall not” do so.

“But for me it’s a distinction without a difference,” he said.

“From my point of view, 2231 is telling Iran that it should not be undertaking any activity relating to ballistic missiles,” said Shannon, adding that the administration was acting on that basis.

“In other words,” he said, “we responded to the ballistic missile launches with designations [against several entities linked to the missile program] and we will continue to respond—”

“So we responded as if it were a violation?” Perdue interjected.

“We did.”

“So you think it is a violation?” Perdue repeated.

“‘Violation’ is a—,” Shannon began, then stopped. “Let me put it this way: I believe it violated the intent of 2231.”

“Whether our international lawyers will say it ‘violated’ 2231, this is why we use the word ‘inconsistent,’” he added. “But from our point of view these launches are prohibited, and we are going to do everything we can to stop them.”

Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif led their respective delegations in the nuclear negotiations in Austria and Switzerland, leading to the agreement in July 2015. (AP Photo, File)

‘I’m not an international lawyer’

Resolution 2231 was the international community’s endorsement of the Iran nuclear deal.

The “called upon” language enabled Iran’s lead negotiator, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, to boast to lawmakers in Tehran that his team had achieved its aims, since the missile provision was “non-binding.”

Three days after the council passed the resolution unanimously, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and was asked about its wording on missiles.

“Why would we accept inferior language that changes the mandatory ‘shall [not]’ to a permissive ‘call upon’?” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) asked him.

Kerry insisted at the time that “the exact same language” had been “transferred” from the previous missile embargo into the new resolution.

At Tuesday’s hearing Menendez recalled that exchange.

“If in fact it’s exactly the same language, if the secretary’s interpretation was correct,” then why was the administration now saying the launches were “inconsistent with” rather than a “violation” of the resolution, he asked.

“Which is it?” Menendez asked Shannon. “Is it a violation, or did we soften the language in such a way that permits exactly what Iran is doing now?”

“Again, I would argue that this [‘inconsistent with’ versus ‘in violation of’] is a distinction without a difference,” Shannon replied, “because we are convinced that 2231 prohibits these kinds of launches.”

“If we believe it’s prohibited, why did we not use the word ‘violation?’” Menendez pressed.

“I’m not an international lawyer, sir,” said Shannon.

Menendez responded that he was not an international lawyer either but that, having worked as a lawyer before coming to the Senate, “I understand the difference between ‘called upon’ and ‘shall.’ And there is a fundamental difference.”

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