Europeans Ramp up Pressure on Iran

Britain, France, and Germany say Iran’s ballistic missile program is inconsistent with the nuclear deal and improves its capacity to deliver nuclear payload. Tehran counters that Europeans have failed to meet obligations under the pact.


Three key European powers this week inched closer to the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran, saying that Tehran’s ballistic missile program is inconsistent with its obligations under the Iran nuclear accord.

Iran’s ballistic program—which was largely prohibited by the United Nations Security Council before the adoption of the Iran nuclear pact in 2015—has been a source of contention between Washington and Tehran. Under the terms of the agreement, Iran reserved the right to develop ballistic missiles for conventional warheads. But it pledged not to develop missiles capable of delivering a nuclear bomb.

Under President Donald Trump, the United States—which pulled out of the nuclear deal in May 2018—maintains that Iran has been violating the spirit of the agreement by developing banned missile capabilities under the cover its conventional weapons program.

The administration recently got a boost from Britain, France, and Germany, which signed a joint letter last month declaring that “Iran’s developments of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles and related technologies is inconsistent” with its obligations under a U.N. resolution that endorsed the nuclear accord. Foreign Policy is publishing the letter, which was made public by the United Nations earlier this week, as part of our Document of the Week series.

The letter constituted the latest sign that key European powers—which remain committed to the nuclear pact—are seeking to shore up their relations with Washington and to chastise Tehran for what they view as its gradual retreat from its obligations under the nuclear pact. But Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, accused them of seeking to “cover up their miserable incompetence” in living up to their own obligations under the nuclear pact. If the United Kingdom, France, and Germany “want a modicum of global credibility, they can begin by exerting sovereignty rather than bowing to US bullying,” he said.

The European powers assert that an Iranian launch of a Shahab-3 medium-range missile—which appeared footage posted on social media in April—included a booster that the Missile Technology Control Regime concluded is capable of delivering a nuclear weapon. The 35-member association of the world’s main missile producers urges restrictions on the export of nuclear missile technology.

The export group considers any missile capable of delivering a payload of at least 500 kilograms, about 1,000 pounds, over 300 kilometers, about 200 miles, inherently capable of hosting a nuclear bomb. Iran launched a second Shahab-3 missile over a 680-mile stretch of Iranian territory on July 24.

The European powers cited press reports that Iran attempted unsuccessfully in August to launch a Safir satellite launch vehicle that used ballistic missile technology used in two Iranian missile programs that are capable of delivering nuclear weapons. They also said that Iran supplied Houthi rebels in Yemen with an advanced Borkan-3 liquid-propelled medium-range ballistic missile in violation of a separate U.N. embargo, contained in Resolution 2216, in Yemen.

Iran delivered a sharp response to the Europeans, noting that the Missile Technology Control Regime, which is not recognized by Iran, is not legally binding on states and that the Iran nuclear agreement does not require it to abide by the organization’s definition of a nuclear-capable missile.

“[T]he definition and criteria contained in the Missile Technology Control Regime are not legally binding even for its 35 members, let alone being accepted universally,” Iran’s U.N. Ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi wrote in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and to this month’s president of the U.N. Security Council, Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

“[N]one of Iran’s missiles are ‘designed’ to be exclusively capable of delivering conventional warheads,” Ravanchi wrote.  The nuclear pact, he added, “does not limit, in any way, the activities related to the conventional ballistic missiles of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

The Iranian diplomat wrote that the U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing the nuclear pact permits Iran to import and export conventional missile technology as long as it seeks the approval of the U.N. Security Council on a case by case basis. But he said “certain western members” have prevented the council from considering requests for such transactions. He also dismissed claims that its launch of satellites—“which are intrinsically designed to place satellites into orbit, not deliver warheads”—is prohibited by any U.N. resolutions.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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