State Department spokesman John Kirby struggled Monday to articulate whether the Obama administration believes Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests violated a standing U.N. Security Council resolution and did not deny that the softening on missile test restrictions in the resolution was a concession made by the United States during negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal.
Associated Press reporter Matt Lee challenged Kirby during the State Department daily press briefing on whether the Iranian missile launches violated U.N. Security Council resolution 2231, which endorsed the Iran deal as international law. He did so by first comparing the language of resolution 2231 with the older resolution 1929 that it replaced upon the passing of the nuclear accord.
"[Resolution] 1929 says ‘that Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology,’" Lee quoted to Kirby. "2231, which replaced  and enshrined the Iran deal, says ‘Iran is 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’ … You have ‘shall not’ and ‘is called upon.’ And as [Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly] Churkin said, you can’t violate a call. You can ignore it, but it’s not a violation."
Iran test-fired two ballistic missiles capable of reaching Israel on March 9, with the phrase "Israel must be wiped off the map" written on them in Hebrew. The launches appeared to intentionally coincide with Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to the Jewish state on the same day.
These launches came one day after Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps tested several more ballistic missiles. Iranian leaders also promised the same week that their missile work will not stop as they continue to build on their current arsenal, the most sophisticated one in the Middle East
The missiles were all reportedly capable of delivering nuclear warheads, a point that Kirby confirmed on Monday.
Kirby responded to Lee that he is not going to engage in a "rhetorical debate" to determine if Iran violated resolution 2231, but Lee immediately challenged him, saying the U.S. will have to do just that if it wants the U.N. to act on the missile tests.
"You’re going to have to because if you’re going to push this at the Security Council, you’re going to have to convince people, like the Russians and the Chinese and others, that they’re wrong and your interpretation is right," Lee said. "And if you can’t do that, then you’re going to lose. You’re not going to be able to get anything through the Security Council."
Kirby assured Lee the U.S. has a strong case that Iran violated resolution 2231 with its missile tests, saying the "launches are clearly in defiance of that resolution. There’s no question about it."
Lee kept pushing Kirby on the topic, causing the spokesman to become noticeably irritated and flustered.
"It seems to me you think it’s a violation still, but I don’t know," Lee asked.
Kirby looked down and smiled in frustration before responding, "We believe that [Iran’s] activity, [which] even you admitted is not consistent with what they are called upon to do in the resolution. Therefore, we believe … that it is important for the council to take this up. And the council can have this discussion about whether it was technically a violation or not."
Lee repeated his question and received a similar answer before asking, "Does that mean violation?"
"I’m not going to get into the technical definition of ‘violate,’ Kirby said. "Clearly, what they have done here is in defiance of their obligations under that resolution, and we believe the council should take it up."
Lee then said that "you’re just calling on them not to [test ballistic missiles]. That’s like saying, ‘You know, Iran, it would be really nice if you didn’t do this.’"
He then turned to the nuclear deal and whether American negotiators made concessions on Iranian missiles.
"The U.S. negotiators at the U.N. [who accepted] a change in the language from the very straightforward ‘shall not undertake’ to ‘is called upon not to undertake,’ how do you make the case that that wasn’t a concession?" he asked.
"Because I wasn’t in the room when that was negotiated, Matt," Kirby said in response. "I can’t speak to how that language was derived."
Kirby then repeated his argument that Iran did not meet its U.N. obligations.
Resolution 2231 was created in July to give the Iran deal international force, and it prohibits the Islamic Republic from testing ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The agreement received criticism when implemented, however, in part because Iran’s missile arsenal was not part of the accord. On the contrary, sanctions on ballistic missile deliveries to Iran will end in no more than eight years under the deal, although the Islamic Republic is in theory not allowed to undergo missile work in the interim.
Britain and France expressed their concern over the launches but would not say if they thought they were in violation of resolution 2231.
The U.S. imposed unilateral sanctions on Iran in January for their ballistic missile tests from late last year.