Obama administration lawyers are advising officials against describing recent Iranian ballistic missile tests as a violation of the United Nations resolution governing the recently implemented nuclear agreement with Iran, according to multiple U.S. officials and sources familiar with the situation who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon.
The decision has created friction with Congress and inside the administration itself, with officials and lawmakers citing previous statements from the administration declaring that such missile launches would be considered a violation.
That stance was walked back after U.N. Security Council members such as Russia said it does not consider the latest Iranian tests a violation of the resolution. A recent letter signed by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power called the tests "inconsistent" with the resolution.
Congress is now pursuing an inquiry into what lawmakers describe as the Obama administration’s efforts to mislead lawmakers about the terms of the nuclear deal.
Thomas Shannon, the State Department’s undersecretary for political affairs, hinted in testimony to Congress last week that U.S. lawyers do not view the Iranian missile tests as a direct violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which internationally codified the nuclear agreement reached last summer.
"Whether our international lawyers will say it violated 2231, this is why we use the word inconsistent," Shannon told Congress. "But in our point of view, these launches are prohibited."
Officials who spoke to the Free Beacon confirmed Shannon’s characterization and said administration lawyers will review the U.N. resolution.
Shannon "was referring to the various lawyers and experts working for the U.S. government who are most familiar with the technical and legal wording of U.N. Security Council resolutions in general," a State Department official who was not authorized to speak on record explained to the Free Beacon.
"Shannon was not referring to any specific lawyer or any specific U.S. government official, but was referring in general to the lawyers and experts working for the U.S. government," the official said.
The administration’s refusal to label these tests as a violation has sparked anger in Congress, where several lawmakers have accused the administration of walking back its promises about the deal’s parameters.
"It is ridiculous that the Obama administration refuses to call Iran’s latest launches what they are: direct violations of international ballistic missile restrictions," Sen. David Perdue (R., Ga.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told the Free Beacon. "We cannot afford to give this rogue regime the benefit of the doubt any longer. If Iran refuses to be an honest actor and halt its bad behavior, then our policies must change to reflect that reality."
Perdue has spearheaded new legislation aimed at imposing further sanctions on Iran as a result of these missile tests.
Rep. Mike Pompeo (R., Kan.) told the Free Beacon that there appears to be strain within the Obama administration over the refusal to outwardly describe Iran’s missile tests as a violation.
"This week, [Iranian] Foreign Minister Zarif asserted that Iran’s missile program was ‘not open to negotiation,’" said Pompeo, a member of the House’s intelligence committee. "While the Iranians are obstinate, the Obama administration debates semantics for weeks—ignoring the frightening reality that Iran tested ballistic missiles."
"Congressional leaders, American allies, and even, it appears, some in the Obama administration agree that these tests violated international law," said Pompeo. "A swift and robust response is required, which is why I introduced H.R. 4815, the Iran Ballistic Missile Sanctions Act of 2016, to target the individuals and organizations that facilitate this dangerous sector of Iran’s military."
One foreign policy insider who had been briefed on the situation by U.N.-based diplomats confirmed to the Free Beacon that there is tension inside the Obama administration over its stance.
"There are those inside the administration, including Cabinet members, who justifiably want Washington to use harsher language against Iran," the source said. "But they’re being overruled by others who are defending Russia and Iran’s interpretation. Of course, if the Americans were to press their case, it would risk confrontation with Iran."
Congressional sources confirmed to the Free Beacon that the administration is moving to rework the terms of the deal to soothe Iranian anger over Washington’s increasingly agitated stance.
"There seem to be cracks showing in the administration’s approach to Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests, and it is in our country’s national interest that the more sane voices win out," said one senior congressional official who works on the Iran issue. "While international diplomats and low level American officials are saying one thing, Secretary Kerry is saying another on this issue that seriously affects the safety of the American people."