White House under pressure to respond to Iran’s missile tests

While senators consider new legislation after Tehran fires missiles that it brags can reach Israel, administration indicates that more of the same is the plan forward

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee (center), the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, at a Washington news conference in March 2015. (Win McNamee/Getty Images via JTA)
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee (center), the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, at a Washington news conference in March 2015. (Win McNamee/Getty Images via JTA)

WASHINGTON — Despite pressure from Congress, the Obama administration continued to move only slowly toward acknowledging that Iran has violated a UN Security Council resolution prohibiting ballistic missile tests, and gestured toward a moderate sanctions response – if any – to Tehran’s actions.

After Iran conducted two ballistic missile tests earlier this week, and bragged that its missiles could hit Israel, Congress urged the administration to respond quickly, with at least one prominent senator claiming bipartisan support for new, tougher legislation targeting the Islamic republic.

Iran test-launched two ballistic missiles Wednesday emblazoned with the phrase “Israel must be wiped out” in Hebrew, Iranian media reported, in a show of power by the Shiite nation as US Vice President Joe Biden visited Jerusalem. Israel’s Foreign Ministry slammed the tests, said the missiles that were tested could carry a nuclear warhead, and said “Iran’s surface-to-surface missile program must be stopped.”

Iranian media reported that the military had conducted two tests of medium-range ballistic missiles in the past week. Such tests, if confirmed, violate UN Security Council Resolution 2331, which prohibits Iran from further developing its ballistic missile program.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), a longtime critic of the administration’s Iran policy, indicated following the second test that there was growing bipartisan interest in tightening sanctions on Iran.

Describing the missile tests as “a deliberate attempt to test the will of the US and the international community,” Corker admonished the administration and the UN Security Council to “wake up and impose costs on Iran because clearly the current ballistic missile sanctions regime is ineffective.”

In a statement issued late Wednesday, Corker suggested that there was “already a strong bipartisan movement in the Senate to act.”

Although Corker has continued working on additional legislation to strengthen the sanctions against Iran, each of the two tests this week engendered more vocal support in Congress for a tough response to Iran’s continued violations of a UN Security Council resolution barring Iran from developing its ballistic missile program.

Sen. Chris Coons. (photo credit: CC BY Mathplourde, Flickr)
Sen. Chris Coons. (photo credit: CC BY Mathplourde, Flickr)

Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware who supported the Iran nuclear deal during its congressional approval process, urged the administration this week to “be engaged and strenuous” in enforcing sanctions that are currently in place, as well as calling on the Security Council to respond to the latest test of medium-range missiles.

Congresswoman Nita Lowey of New York, the ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee and a Democrat who opposed the Iran nuclear deal, said that Iran’s behavior “must be punished by the world community,” and emphasized that she is “firmly committed to Congress’s role in holding Iran accountable for all of its international commitments.”

Corker acknowledged in February that he was working on new measures that would increase the US response to ballistic missile tests, as well as a reauthorization of the Iran Sanctions Act, the longstanding legislation that enshrined both nuclear and non-nuclear related sanctions against Tehran. New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat who has stridently opposed the administration’s more conciliatory stance toward Iran, also co-authored with his Republican colleague Mark Kirk of Illinois legislation that would extend the sanctions act beyond its 2016 expiration.

US Secretary of State John Kerry testifies during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing about the Fiscal Year 2017 budget on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, February 25, 2016. (AFP / SAUL LOEB)
US Secretary of State John Kerry testifies during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing about the Fiscal Year 2017 budget on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, February 25, 2016. (AFP / SAUL LOEB)

Earlier this year, Secretary of State John Kerry testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the government has all the tools necessary to apply pressure on Iran, and that the administration does not necessarily require a renewal of the Iran Sanctions Act. The administration is believed to be concerned that renewing the legislation could cause Iran to claim a violation of the nuclear deal and Washington’s commitment not to re-impose nuclear sanctions.

Following the missile tests, the administration refused to commit to supporting or opposing any new legislation. State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner explained that “when Congress puts forward legislation, we’ll look at it closely, we’ll work with them; if we have concerns, we’ll make those concerns known; and with the ultimate goal of continuing to work productively or constructively with Congress to ensure that we have the tools in place to address our concerns with Iran.”

At the same time, he suggested that the administration does not require any additional legislation to respond to the latest incidents. “We’re quite confident that both unilaterally and through the UN we still have measures in place or avenues in place to apply pressure to Iran if it carries out actions that are inconsistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2231,” Toner added.

Should the administration ultimately determine that Iran’s actions did violate the Security Council resolution, officials say that the administration is looking at two paths for action – one unilateral and one multilateral.

In the multilateral path, the UN and particularly the Security Council would respond through additional sanctions – either through new sanctions or strengthening existing sanctions that remain against Iran even after the nuclear deal went into effect. The White House in recent days has talked up the importance of international partnerships in the effort to dissuade Iran from continuing to develop its ballistic missile program.

The unilateral path would involve the strengthening of the current arsenal of sanctions that the US has already imposed on Iran as a result of its continued ballistic missile development.

In January, following the implementation of the nuclear deal and an earlier round of missile tests conducted in late 2015, the administration added 11 entities and individuals to its sanctions list in a response that Corker derided as “not particularly strong.” During a Wednesday hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee, New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte also derided the January sanctions as ineffective.

Still, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest suggested that the US response would include increasing enforcement of sanctions that are in place, as well as existing restrictions about types of equipment and materials may be shipped to the Islamic Republic. “There’s more that we can do to work with our partners to interdict those kinds of shipments that may include some of those illicit products,” Earnest asserted.

Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and an expert on Iran sanctions who has repeatedly testified before Corker’s committee also warned that a response similar to January’s would have little impact.

The US government, he warned, “could probably spend the next ten years chasing Iranians and their procurement networks in a game of never-ending sanctions whack-a-mole.”

“My view is that its not going to work, that those are highly ineffectual sanctions against a regime that has been highly adept at winning the game of sanctions whack-a-mole,” he suggested.

“The Iranians are fairly adept at this, so what they’ve done is establish multiple procurement networks, multiple paths through different countries with the view that if one procurement network gets hit or doesn’t succeed, they have backups to the backups.”

Dubowitz suggested that Congress has a range of options ranging from forcing the administration be “much more forceful in going after the foreign companies that are enabling Iran’s missile program using secondary sanctions all the way to identifying those sectors of Iran’s economy that actually provide technology and equipment for the missile program and imposing sector-based sanctions.”

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