February 8, 2017 | Policy Brief

Iran’s missile tests reveal weaknesses of UN Security Council Resolution

February 8, 2017 | Policy Brief

Iran’s missile tests reveal weaknesses of UN Security Council Resolution

Iran’s latest missile test on January 29 received a swift response, as warranted. The United Nations Security Council called for an emergency session, and on February 2, the U.S. Treasury imposed new sanctions on persons and entities involved with Tehran’s ballistic missile program. Iran responded equally swiftly. An Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander proclaimed that a separate, large-scale military missile exercise underway in Semnan province was intended to “showcase the power of Iran’s revolution and to dismiss the sanctions.” Officials in Iran have vowed to continue testing ballistic missiles and dismissed claims that its program is a cover to develop long-range projectiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The United States and its allies should demand that Tehran uphold its obligation not to conduct tests of nuclear-capable ballistic or cruise missiles.

Contextualizing Iran’s Missile Tests

Nuclear weapons development usually goes hand-in-hand with the development of means of warhead delivery. This was one of the reasons that the 2010 United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution on Iran’s nuclear program banned work on ballistic missiles. More recently, Resolution 2231 – passed in July 2015 to codify the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal – calls on Iran not to undertake ballistic missile-related activities until the IAEA reaches the so-called broader conclusion that Tehran’s nuclear program is peaceful.

The IAEA’s investigations into the possible military dimension (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear program raised questions about the country’s work on missile re-entry vehicles. According to the IAEA, from 2002 to 2003, Iran carried out studies on the integration of a payload, possibly a nuclear one, into the re-entry vehicle for its Shahab-3 missile. Documentation obtained by the IAEA included information on workshops in Iran on development for such vehicles. Although the IAEA Board closed consideration of the PMD agenda item at its December 2015 board meeting, Iran never fully answered the Agency’s questions.

Weak Language in Resolution 2231

Iran’s testing of ballistic and cruise missiles with wide ranges should raise concerns among America’s European allies. Yet Iran argues that its missile tests are permitted because Resolution 2231 only “call[s] upon” it “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” In the language of the UN, “calling” is weaker than the phrasing of pre-JCPOA resolutions that “decides” that Iran shall not conduct activity “related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”

The language of Resolution 2231 was largely negotiated between Iran and the U.S., meaning both sides must have an agreed understanding as to the meaning of “designed to be capable.” This definition should be disclosed to clarify the resolution’s scope. The JCPOA is a complex agreement, and its negotiators concluded side agreements to clarify some of the arrangements. Some of the side deals – such as exemptions on certain nuclear material holdings or on the number of hot cells – were made public shortly before the U.S. presidential transition. Others, like those on PMD and Iran’s uranium enrichment research and development, remain under wraps. According to Iranian news reports, unwritten agreements may also have been reached, such as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s assertion of then-Secretary of State John Kerry’s promise that the Iran Sanctions Act would not be extended.

Disclosure of the understandings related to Resolution 2231 is important, especially in light of German reports that on January 29, Iran may have also tested a “Sumar” cruise missile that is considered nuclear-capable. Sumar’s design work was known at the time of the JCPOA negotiations, so it is essential to understand whether this matter was discussed during the talks, and if so, why Resolution 2231 makes no mention of cruise missiles. Alternatively, if there was an undisclosed understanding between Iran and P5+1 over cruise-missile testing, that should also be made public.


The JCPOA puts a temporary lid on Iran’s uranium-enrichment and plutonium programs, but other nuclear developments – testing of more advanced centrifuges, stockpiling of uranium, and enhancing nuclear manufacturing infrastructure – continue apace. Developments on Tehran’s missile program therefore cannot be dealt with in isolation from its nuclear efforts.

If testing of ballistic and cruise missiles is covered by Resolution 2231, those provisions should be implemented and Iran held to account. If the resolution’s provisions do not cover such activities, the Security Council should issue a new resolution explicitly banning them and ensure that there are long-term restrictions in place for the time when Iran is capable of producing fissile material in just a matter of weeks.

This new resolution should be synchronized with additional curbs on Iran’s enrichment capacity and concluded well before an IAEA broader conclusion is reached. Failure to address this problem means that Iran will have delivery vehicles on hand when it is able, in a decade, to enrich uranium for a nuclear bomb in merely a few weeks.

Dr. Olli Heinonen is a senior advisor on science and nonproliferation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is the former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and head of its Department of Safeguards.