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Obama’s Iranian Missile Sanctions Were Deceptive and Hypocritical

Gareth Porter

By Gareth Porter

    Barack Obama leaves a White House press conference about Iran on Jan. 17, 2016. (Jacquelyn Martin / AP)

The Obama administration imposed new sanctions against Iranian individuals and entities on Jan. 17 — the day after all nuclear-related sanctions against Iran were lifted in conjunction with “Implementation Day” of the nuclear agreement. The reason was supposedly that an Iranian missile test had violated a United Nations Security Council resolution. But by the time the new sanctions were imposed, the U.N. resolution in question was no longer legally valid or relevant to the concern that had prompted it.

That contradiction is only one of a set of false and misleading claims surrounding U.S. policy on sanctions and the ballistic missile test Iran carried out in October 2015. The arguments that the test was somehow illegitimate or threatening turn out, on closer examination, to be both dishonest and hypocritical.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the two leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, have clashed over Iran policy, but not over the new sanctions announced immediately after Implementation Day. Clinton called for new sanctions against Iran over its missile test after the lifting of the old sanctions. Sanders has not made a specific statement on the issue.

The Obama administration had planned to punish Iran for its October missile test from the beginning. Echoing the arguments by opponents of the administration’s nuclear agreement with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) administration officials claimed in December that the Iranian missile test violated Security Council Resolution 1929, adopted in 2010. That resolution banned any “activity” by Iran “related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”

But on Jan. 16—Implementation Day—all Security Council resolutions related to Iran’s nuclear program that had been passed in previous years were officially null and void under the agreement. In negotiating the JCPOA, the United States and the other powers involved were acknowledging that Security Council Resolution 1929 and all the other nuclear-related resolutions would cease to be relevant when the agreement was implemented.

In explaining on Jan. 17 why the United States had adopted new sanctions on Iranians in conjunction with its missile program, President Obama said, “Iran’s recent missile test, for example, was a violation of its international obligations”—an obvious reference to Security Council Resolution 1929. “And as a result,” he continued, “the United States is imposing sanctions on individuals and companies working to advance Iran’s ballistic missile program.”

But the suggestion that Security Council Resolution 1929 was the reason for the new sanctions was false and misleading. The Treasury Department did not base its “designations” of 11 Iranian entities or individuals for helping procurement for the Iranian ballistic missile program on any U.N. resolution. The Treasury Department announcement cited only Executive Order 13382 of June 28, 2005, issued by President George W. Bush, which was directed broadly at the Iranian missile program in general. It authorizes sanctions on any foreigner deemed to have contributed to “the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or their means of delivery (including ballistic missiles capable of delivering such weapons). …”

Executive Order 13382 was part of the Bush administration’s campaign to isolate Iran over its nuclear program, based on the claim that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons. However, now that the International Atomic Energy Agency has acknowledged that it has no evidence of any ongoing Iranian nuclear weapons program, the Bush executive order is directly at odds with the basic premise of the JCPOA and the lifting of all nuclear-related sanctions against Iran.

The entire administration effort to get the Security Council to impose new sanctions against Iran employed an argument about the missile test in question that was also false and misleading. U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power declared that an “independent panel of experts” associated with the Security Council Sanctions Committee had “concluded definitively” that Iran’s missile test was a violation of Security Council Resolution 1929.

In fact, however, the expert panel had not done any technical analysis of whether the Emad missile tested was “capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” As British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft revealed at the Dec. 15, 2015, Security Council meeting, the expert panel report had relied on criteria from the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) to reach that conclusion. The criteria used were whether the missile has a range of more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) and a payload of more than 500 kilograms (1,102 pounds). The Emad exceeded both criteria and was therefore deemed capable of delivering a nuclear weapon, according to Rycroft.

But the MTCR, an informal arrangement of states providing missile technology, has never used those criteria to determine whether a specific missile is capable of delivering a nuclear weapon. The purpose of those criteria has always been to determine whether an export license for a generic missile technology should be approved. The MTCR simply assumes that any missile with sufficient range and lift is capable of carrying a nuclear weapon.In fact, the United States has ignored those criteria when the missile at issue belongs to a U.S. ally. In 2012, for example, the Obama administration agreed to allow South Korea to extend the range of its ballistic missiles from the previous limit of 300 kilometers to 800 kilometers (500 miles) and to have a 500-kilogram payload. That meant that South Korean missiles could reach all of North Korean territory from anywhere on South Korean territory and that it could also reach Chinese, Russian and Japanese territory for the first time. But the administration approved the change despite the fact that the South Korean missile would violate the MTCR criteria.

A similar exception has been made for Saudi Arabia more than once. In 1987, the Saudis purchased DF-3 (also known as CSS-2) missiles from China. With a range of about 3,000 kilometers or more and a payload of 2,000 kilograms, the missile far exceeded the MTCR criteria for allowable exports. Furthermore, it was well known that China had designed the DF-3 to carry nuclear weapons. But the United States took no action against the Saudis. The Chinese had also designed a warhead with a conventional payload to go with the missile sold to the Saudis, and the United States accepted that South Korea had purchased the non-nuclear variant of the missile.

In 2007, the Bush administration secretly supported the Saudi purchase of the more advanced Chinese DF-21 missiles, which also have both nuclear-capable and conventional warhead variants. The administration accepted the deal, with the sole condition that the CIA could verify that the model purchased was the one designed to carry conventional payloads.

If the administration had treated Iran’s missile test the same way it treated South Korean and Saudi missile purchases, it would have concluded that it did not violate either Security Council Resolution 1929 or Executive Order 13382. Although U.S. officials have long demonized the Iranian ballistic missile program as linked to nuclear weapons, its history belies that political line. Uzi Rubin, who ran Israel’s anti-missile program throughout the 1990s, has long pointed out that Iran’s missile strategy is aimed at fighting a conventional war. He told me in a 2012 interview that Iran was developing missiles that would eventually be accurate enough to attack Israeli air bases, as well as economic and administrative targets. Such accuracy would have been irrelevant had Iran been planning to use them for delivery of a nuclear weapon.

The Iranian test of the newly redesigned Emad missile in October was further evidence of the conventional military role of Iranian missiles. The test showcased the missile’s advanced guidance system, aimed at achieving the high degree of accuracy needed for pinpoint targeting. Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan pointed out that now, for the first time, an Iranian missile could be controlled until the very last moment before hitting its target.

Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, arguably the world’s leading independent specialist on the Iranian nuclear program, said in an interview that it would take years of development and testing for Iran to achieve that kind of accuracy. He does not believe that the development of the missile has been aimed at delivering nuclear weapons.

“Was the Emad designed to deliver a nuclear weapon? Probably not,” Elleman said, although he added that Iran is capable of modifying the Emad to carry a nuclear weapon “without much difficulty.” Still, doing so would require some redesign of the missile, according to Elleman. “At least the internal components would be different,” he said.

“The intelligence community says that if the Iranians were to get nuclear weapons, missiles are the way they would deliver it,” Elleman said. But Elleman observed that, because Iran has had no other means of responding to an external attack, it has to rely on ballistic missiles for its defense in any case. “Assuming that Iran decided to forgo nuclear weapons for the next three decades,” he said, “missiles would still be the cornerstone of their deterrent strategy.”

So the Obama administration’s official line that the missile was “capable of delivering a nuclear weapon” is a political dissimulation. It is a way of justifying the continuation of the U.S. denunciation of the Iranian missile program, which is demanded by domestic politics and U.S. alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia — even in the wake of the nuclear deal with Iran. It is only realistic to expect, therefore, U.S. policy on that subject to be marked by hypocrisy and duplicity for years to come.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published “Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.”

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