The revelation of recent days that, back in January, President Obama agreed that the United Nations should lift its sanctions against two Iranian state banks which financed Iran’s ballistic missile development puts the lie to Washington’s claims – stubbornly maintained for more than a year – that it was determined to rein in the Islamic Republic’s expanding missile program.
In fact, the president’s decision reflects a larger pattern of U.S. backtracking over Iran’s ballistic missiles – one that dates back to well before the landmark U.S.-led global agreement with Iran over its nuclear program in July of 2015.
During the U.S.-led negotiations over that agreement, the president decided they should focus squarely on Iran’s nuclear program and not cover such related issues as Iran’s development and testing of long-range ballistic missiles that can carry nuclear warheads – despite the obvious tie between nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
With an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program in place, U.S. officials argued, they could then pressure Iran over not only its ballistic missile program but also its sponsorship of terror, its efforts to destabilize Sunni nations in the region and its increasingly grotesque human rights record at home.
But the public record – of which the new revelation about sanctions relief is now a part, courtesy of The Wall Street Journal – reveals something far different: While negotiating and implementing the nuclear agreement, Washington took multiple steps that not only legitimized Iran’s missile program but actually helped Tehran make further progress.
First and foremost, the United States agreed to soften the global prohibitions directed against that program.
Back in June of 2010, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1929, which was in place until July 2015 and which stated that Iran “shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology.” That restriction was crystal clear.
But under Resolution 2231, which the Security Council passed in conjunction with the nuclear deal, Iran was merely “called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.” In other words, what had been a legal restriction was now, at Tehran’s demand and with Washington’s assent, a rhetorical admonition.
Second, as we now know, the United States agreed to let the United Nations lift its sanctions against two Iranian state banks that financed the ballistic missile program eight years ahead of schedule.
Under the nuclear deal, Washington agreed to lift its own sanctions, in place since 2007, on Iran’s Bank Sepah and its subsidiary, Bank Sepah International, for their role as – according to Stuart Levey, then-Treasury under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence – “the financial linchpin of Iran’s missile procurement network.” The U.N. sanctions, however, were supposed to remain in effect until 2023.
But in a series of secret U.S.-Iranian deals that the two nations inked in Geneva on Jan. 17, Washington agreed to the immediate end to the U.N. sanctions, to which the Security Council quickly acceded. (That, by the way, came in conjunction with other controversial U.S.-Iranian agreements under which Tehran released four Americans it was holding and Washington sent $1.7 billion to Iran to settle a legal dispute – something which critics call a ransom payment, but the administration insists is not.)
All of that makes Washington’s tut-tutting about Iran’s testing of increasingly sophisticated, longer range ballistic missiles more than a little disingenuous. Tehran has conducted up to 10 such tests since the nuclear deal came together 15 months ago, and U.S. officials tend to react to each one by expressing concern.
After Iranian tests early this year, including a March 9 test in which one rocket reportedly carried the words “Israel must be wiped off the earth” in Hebrew and Persian, Secretary of State John Kerry offered to work toward a “new arrangement to find a peaceful solution” to the controversy over Iran’s missile program – but Iran first had to “make it clear to everybody that they are prepared to cease these kinds of activities that raise questions about credibility and questions about intentions.”
Not surprisingly, Iran quickly dismissed the offer, with top Iranian officials calling Kerry’s comments “baseless” and “nonsense” and insisting that the ballistic missile program is nonnegotiable.
Who can blame Tehran, after Washington had sent repeated signals by then that it wasn’t serious about the missile program to begin with?
So, here’s a disturbing question: Have U.S. officials just been pretending that they’re serious about restraining Iran’s missile program, or have they deluded themselves into thinking that they still could do so?
Lawrence J. Haas, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is the author of the new book Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.