President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications reiterated the administration’s position Thursday that the Iran nuclear deal is only intended to curb the country’s nuclear program, while the country's development of ballistic missiles is an entirely separate issue, along with the Islamic Republic’s sponsorship of terrorism and aggression in the Middle East.
Iran has met its major obligations under the nuclear accord despite its continued work on ballistic missiles in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, according to Ben Rhodes.
Rhodes commented on the status of the Iran deal at a special press briefing during the president’s final Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C.
Rhodes said in the briefing that Iran has met its "major commitments" under the JCPOA, the formal name for the nuclear agreement, prompting a reporter to ask if that phrasing was intentionally used to leave "wiggle room" on the matter due to Iran’s ballistic missile tests.
"No, Iran has complied with the JCPOA," Rhodes said. "I highlight major commitments just because the biggest steps Iran had to take, frankly, in rolling back its program, are things that they’ve already taken: shipping the stockpile [of highly enriched uranium] out of the country, removing a substantial amount of their centrifuge infrastructure, converting their [heavy water] Arak reactor, allowing for inspections and transparency measures to be put into place."
Rhodes argued that the JCPOA is only a nuclear deal that was never supposed to include anything on ballistic missile launches and development.
"This is a nuclear deal, and we’ve always been very clear that the JCPOA is about rolling back and constraining Iran’s nuclear program," Rhodes said. "We were also clear that they were going to continue to be engaged in behavior that we found counterproductive – ballistic missiles, support for terrorism, destabilizing activities in the region. That’s not the nuclear deal. It’s a separate set of issues on which we have the ability to respond."
Critics say that ballistic missiles cannot be separated from the nuclear issue because any nuclear weapons program has three aspects to it—fuel for a bomb from the fissile material, the development of a nuclear warhead, and a delivery vehicle to launch it somewhere. They argue that ballistic missiles are often the vehicle of choice for delivering nuclear weapons and it is dangerous to leave out one-third of nuclear weapons development from the JCPOA.
The deputy national security adviser explained that while Iran has received approximately $100 billion in sanctions relief upon implementation of the deal in January, the United States still sanctioned specific people and companies involved in the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile program after launching tests in violation of U.N. resolutions.
He also said the existence of an Iranian ballistic missile program in the first place is a further argument in favor of the deal.
"The fact that they have a ballistic missile program is all the more reason why we need the nuclear deal," Rhodes said. "Because what would be the most dangerous situation for the United States, Israel, our partners and allies in the region, would be if they were able to marry that ballistic missile technology with a nuclear weapons capability."
Concluding his point, Rhodes argued the nuclear accord eliminates the nuclear threat with Iran, making it easier to now focus on the country’s ballistic missiles.
"The fact of the matter is, the JCPOA takes the nuclear threat off the table. And we’re able to deal with the threat of the ballistic missile program without having a concern that they are going to be able to develop a nuclear warhead that could go onto a ballistic missile."
Iran has come under fire in recent months for repeatedly test-firing ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. U.N. Security Council resolution 2231, which enshrined the JCPOA into international law, "calls upon" Iran to not test ballistic missiles that can carry nuclear weapons, causing the U.S. and its European allies to say Tehran’s actions are "in defiance of" resolution 2231, but not the nuclear agreement.
The Islamic Republic has developed the most sophisticated missile arsenal in the Middle East, and there are growing fears in the region that Iran’s military capabilities are growing and will embolden its aggression.
During one of Iran‘s weapons tests earlier this month, the missiles were marked with the statement: "Israel must be wiped off the Earth."
Critics of the JCPOA are concerned that the deal stipulates the limits on centrifuges will expire after 10 years and the cap on uranium enrichment will be lifted after 15 years, putting Iran close to a nuclear weapon in a decade even if it does not cheat in the interim. With that capability in addition to their ballistic missile arsenal, they argue Iran will be in a powerful position going forward.