By James Patch McLaughlin
WASHINGTON –– In a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing Republicans and Democrats questioned the Obama administration’s response to recent ballistic missile tests that would delay and deter development of a ballistic missile program, saying the administration is too cautious and is concerned the Iranians would be scared away from the nuclear deal. In early March Iran conducted two ballistic missile tests that Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said violates the intent of the Iran nuclear agreement.
Thomas Shannon, Jr., Undersecretary of Political Affairs for the Department of State, testified in front of the Senate committee on Tuesday morning where he faced questions on how the United States was responding to Iranian ballistic missile testing. He was asked if such testing was in violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement adopted in October 2015 , and what effect further congressional legislation against such programs would have on JCPOA and the United State’s obligations under the agreement.
“We remain resolutely and absolutely opposed to Iran’s ballistic missile program,” Shannon said. “We believe that we have both multilaterally and unilaterally the tools necessary to attack that missile program and do whatever we can to interdict technologies that Iran is seeking to advance its ballistic missile program. In regard to potential legislation, our only concern about this legislation is that it not interfere with JCPOA or give Iran any excuse to walk away from the table.”
Sen. Robert Menéndez, D-N.J., expressed concern over statements that would suggest the United States had been “walking on egg shells” so as not to deter the Iranians from closing off communications, and questioned the extent and effectiveness of actions taken by the White House administration. He suggested that financial institutions aiding Iran in its efforts to develop ballistic missiles face sanctions from the United States and that the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA), which will expire at the end of the year, be redrafted now in order to send Iran a strong message that there is current legislation that can be used as a snap-back provision should they not comply with the JCPOA and stop ballistic missile testing.
“You can’t snap back to something that doesn’t exist,” Meléndez said.
The Committee Ranking Member Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., along with committee members on both sides of the isle, supported a renewed ISA as a “backdrop” that would provide needed leverage for the United States in future negotiations. Cardin noted that President Barak Obama has only nine months left in office and he encouraged Shannon and the administration to “aggressively work” with congress to establish long-term legislation that would stop Iran’s missile program for many years after Obama has left office.
Republican senators questioned Shannon hard on the administration’s actions against the ballistic missile program and suggested that it was in fact another aspect of Iran’s nuclear program.
“If the administration is so concerned with a ballistic missile, I mean, as you have said, ‘they’ve given up their ambitions for a nuclear weapon,’ do you believe that they continue to test ballistic missiles with the hope of putting a nuclear warhead on it?” Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., asked. “I don’t believe they’re testing a ballistic missile just to show they can do it. I believe they’re doing it with the purpose of continuing to develop a nuclear weapons program. In fact I have heard from leaders in the region, where they talk about the end of this twelve year period, they believe [Iran] will have just a short amount of time to indeed possess and develop a nuclear weapon.”
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., questioned Shannon further on the Obama administration’s authority to act under the JCPOA against Iran’s ballistic missile program and whether it had done so effectively.
“We all agree when you say we’re opposed to ballistic missile testing,” he said. “We know you want to do everything in your power to delay and deter it. We just have questions if that’s actually happening with this administration. I don’t believe it is. I think the administration is not doing all it can.”
Later in the hearing Shannon said that under the authorities given under JCPOA and United Nations Resolution 2231 the United States had not stopped the ballistic missile program but has prevented external assistance from entities that would help the Iranian achieve their ballistic missile goals.
“Iran has an indigenous capability that we cannot affect in the short term, but we can limit and delay Iran’s ability to build out its ballistic missile program, and in the process, as we gain time through that, we can work with our partners in the region to ensure that they have the capability to defend themselves and that we have the capability to also help them defend themselves.”
Sen. Timothy Kaine, D-Va., agreed with Shannon’s assessment that the administration was doing everything within its authority to deter aggressive actions by Iran in the region. He also asked Shannon what would happen if the United States were to back away from the deal, as GOP presidential candidates have suggested on the campaign trail.
“We would argue that any effort to step away from JCPOA would open a Pandora’s Box in that region that we do not think we could close again because it would highlight an inability of the United States to maintain continuity and stability in the region,” Shannon said. “If we were to contemplate stepping away from the JCPOA, we would not be followed… it would be grasped by supporters of the nuclear program in Iran and by hardliners in Iran to assert that we were unreliable. Our stepping away from the JCPOA would be a clear signal that they need to return to their nuclear weapons program with even greater urgency. So we would view that as very dangerous.”
Shannon said that Iran is determined to develop a ballistic missile program and that more missile launches could be expected in the near future.