U.S.-Iran War of Words Escalates Over Missiles, Nuclear Deal

By Patrick Goodenough | August 21, 2017 | 4:24 AM EDT

Zolfaqar ballistic missiles are displayed at one of several military parades in Iran on Wednesday, September 21, 2016. The slogan on the banner on the truck has been translated as 'If the leaders of the Zionist regime make a mistake then the Islamic Republic will turn Tel Aviv and Haifa to dust.' (Photo: Tasnim news agency)

(CNSNews.com) – Ahead of an Iran-focused visit to Vienna by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, the regime’s new defense minister on Sunday pushed back against U.S. criticism of its ballistic missile program, declaring that it would continue undeterred by outside pressure.

Haley plans to discuss the Iran nuclear agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), just days after declaring that Tehran must not be allowed to use the deal “to hold the world hostage.”

She was responding to a warning by President Hasan Rouhani that Iran could resume its nuclear activities “within hours” if the U.S. reverts to a policy of sanctions.

Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Amir Hatami told reporters Sunday the missile program “will proceed according to the approved plans” and would “not be affected by any type of pressure.”

The work of the defense ministry, he added, would not be delayed “even for one day.”

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani’s second term defense minister, Brig. Gen. Amir Hatami. (Photo: Press TV)

The nomination of Hatami, who has a background in Iran’s notorious Basij militia, was approved in a 261-10 parliamentary vote on Sunday. Introducing him to lawmakers earlier, Rouhani said he had stressed to the nominee the importance of the missile program, and assured them that Hatami would work actively on it.

On July 27 Iran launched a satellite, relying on ballistic missile technology, prompting the U.S. Treasury Department to impose sanctions on six companies linked to the missile program.

The U.S. then joined Britain, France and Germany in condemning the incident as “threatening and provocative,” and calling it “inconsistent with” U.N. Security Council resolution 2231, which enshrined the Iran nuclear deal.

The U.S., Britain, France and Germany, along with Russia and China, were the countries involved in the negotiations that produced the nuclear accord known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quick to point out – not for the first time – that resolution 2231 does not prohibit Iran from carrying out missile launches.

“The missile program is basically Iran’s business,” Lavrov told reporters on Wednesday, criticizing the new U.S. sanctions. “There are no legal bans in U.N. Security Council resolutions on this issue.”

Indeed, the Obama administration came under sharp criticism in Congress and elsewhere for allowing the resolution’s wording to be watered down in 2015: The measure “called upon” Iran not to carry out launches of missiles designed to be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, whereas an earlier resolution – which was replaced by 2231 – had declared that Iran “shall not” undertake launches of missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

The Obama administration was also criticized for acceding to Iran’s demands that the missile program be left off the table during the nuclear negotiations in the first place. The administration countered that the JCPOA was not intended to address all of Iran’s bad behavior, but specifically the primary threat – its suspected nuclear weapon ambitions.

Separately from the Treasury sanctions, President Trump on August 2 signed a bill imposing sanctions on Iran over its missile program and terror sponsorship.

Administration review

Even though the new sanctions are not related to the JCPOA, Rouhani told lawmakers last week Iran could leave the deal and resume its nuclear activities virtually immediately if U.S. decision-makers return to “the failed experience of sanctions.”

That prompted Haley’s statement to the effect that “Iran cannot be allowed to use the nuclear deal to hold the world hostage.”

“Iran, under no circumstances, can ever be allowed to have nuclear weapons,” she said. “At the same time, however, we must also continue to hold Iran responsible for its missile launches, support for terrorism, disregard for human rights, and violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions. The nuclear deal must not become ‘too big to fail.’”

Iranian ambassador to the U.N. Gholamali Khoshroo accused Haley of “distorting” Rouhani’s words and said she would be better served counseling the administration to avoid repeating past mistakes.

The war of words comes against a backdrop of an administration review of the JCPOA, to determine whether the suspension of sanctions under the deal was vital to U.S. national security interests.

Haley’s deliberations at the IAEA this week form part of that review.

Up to now, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog has periodically certified that Iran is complying with the nuclear agreement.

Under U.S. law, however, the administration must also report to Congress every 90 days on Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA. President Trump indicated late last month that when the next report is due, in mid-October, it may well find Iran to be in violation.

Trump’s approach to the deal – which as a candidate he derided as one of the worst he’d ever seen – is troubling Europe, where governments and companies have been lining up to take advantage of the lifting of sanctions.

Visiting Tehran this month, a French minister attached to the foreign ministry, Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, talked up the strengthening of bilateral ties since the deal was struck, and said “promotion of co-operation with Tehran is among Paris’ priorities.”

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who is charged with overseeing the JCPOA, said last month that while she respects the U.S. administration’s review, the deal “does not belong to one country – it belongs to the international community.”

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow