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CDA Institute guest contributor Lauren Cardinal, an MPA candidate at Queen’s School of Policy Studies, comments on Iran’s recent ballistic missile testing and what it means to the JCPOA nuclear deal.

As we approach the one-year anniversary this July of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement, and not even six months after Implementation Day (16 January 2016), critics claim that Iran has blatantly violated the JCPOA and UN Resolution 2231 with the development and testing of their ballistic missiles.

For instance, Iran launched a series of ballistic missiles in the past few months with ranges from 300 km to 2,000 km, which could easily hit other parts of the Middle East. The Revolutionary Guard of Iran released a statement on the launches and claimed they were to “to show Iran’s deterrent power and also the Islamic Republic’s ability to confront any threat against the [Islamic] Revolution, the state and the sovereignty of the country.”

The JCPOA was fiercely debated within the United States and countries that have adversarial relations with Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed the deal was a “historic mistake.” Although those who did not support the agreement attempted to halt the nuclear deal, it was passed and thus far, Iran has complied with the obligations of the JCPOA, which have been verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran’s recent ballistic missile testing has ruffled feathers in Washington – and rightly so considering the instability of the region – but it is not a nuclear issue, and should not be treated as one.

Iran’s successful compliance and implementation of the JCPOA resulted in the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions against the country, which had been mandated by numerous United Nations Resolutions (UN Resolutions 1696, 1737, 1747, 1803, 1835, 1929). A new UN Resolution, Resolution 2231, was passed on 20 July 2015 and replaced Resolution 1929 from 2010. The new Resolution addresses Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities and is wholly different from the JCPOA.

According to paragraph 3, Annex B of Resolution 2231, the UN “calls upon Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.” The wording of this Resolution is relatively soft, by using the term “calls upon” and by specifying that the design cannot “be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” In comparison, Resolution 1929 stated that the UN “decides that Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” In other words, Resolution 2231 allows Iran a potential “loophole” for the development and testing of ballistic missiles, as the wording is not legally binding.

Although the development of Iranian ballistic missiles, which are now considered medium-range, is worrisome for Washington and has the potential to further sour relations with Israel and destabilize the region, it should not be presented as violating either the JCPOA or Resolution 2231. The weapons are equipped with conventional rather than nuclear warheads and Iran claims that the missiles were not designed with nuclear warhead capabilities in mind. In the JCPOA, and reaffirmed in UN Resolution 2231, Iran committed itself to “under no circumstances ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.”

Under the JCPOA and Resolution 2231, the rights of non-nuclear states that are party to the Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons are reaffirmed. Article IV states “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty.” Article I and II explicitly state that no nuclear materials are to be transferred and that states with nuclear capabilities are not to assist non-nuclear states.

Section 29, under Sanctions of Resolution 2231, states “the EU and its Member States and the United States, consistent with their respective laws, will refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran inconsistent with their commitments not to undermine the successful implementation of this JCPOA.” This upholds the wording of the JCPOA.

Despite this, the US Treasury Department has issued sanctions against Iranian companies and individuals as the weapons could “theoretically” be equipped with nuclear warheads. Following the JCPOA, the US suspended their nuclear-related sanctions against Iran, but other sanctions remain. Combined with the dismal price of oil since sanctions against Iran were lifted, the debate of the design of the ballistic missiles and Iran’s conventional deterrence have resulted in speculations that the JCPOA could unravel and sparked debate between the US and Iran.

The focus on the Iranian ballistic missile testing has overshadowed the intense negotiations and concessions that were necessary for the adoption and implementation of the JCPOA that ensures Iran will not pursue a militarized nuclear program. One of the fundamental aspects of the JCPOA was its purpose to “positively contribute to regional and international peace and security,” through means to prevent Iran from pursuing a nuclear program for weapons purposes.

Although Iran is not violating the JCPOA with its ballistic missile testing, President Obama has stated that they have gone against the “spirit” of the agreement, with Jacqueline Shire, a former member of the UN Panel of Experts on Iran, saying that the ballistic missile launches go against the “spirit” of Resolution 2231. The issue of the ballistic missile testing is not one that should be framed as a violation to the JCPOA or UN Resolution 2231, in spirit or in fact, as ballistic missile testing does not in any way equate to nuclear capabilities.

In response to international condemnation of the tests, the Iranian UN mission stated that it “is fully entitled to build a credible conventional capability to deter and defend against any aggression.” Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif who was instrumental in the JCPOA negotiations, maintained on April 10 that the “defense capabilities of the Islamic Republic of Iran are not negotiable.”

The spirit of the agreement that President Obama points to is a two-way street. The JCPOA was an enormous step in normalizing relations with Iran, reintroducing it to the international stage, and settling the debate of the nature of the Iranian nuclear program. Iran’s history of human rights abuses and its reported support of terrorist organizations should now be separated from the terms of the JCPOA and handled separately.

The issue of Iranian ballistic missile systems needs to be addressed through different avenues so as not to unravel the years of work culminating in the JCPOA. With the goal of normalizing relations with Iran and integrating it into the international community, all actors in the Middle East should be considered key players for bringing stability to the region to dissuade Iran from pursuing deterrent capabilities.

CDA Institute guest contributor Lauren Cardinal, a Master of Public Administration candidate at Queen’s School of Policy Studies, examines whether Iran’s current ballistic missile testing violates the JCPOA and UN Resolution 2231. (Image courtesy of Fatemeh Bahrami—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.)

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