Iran Missile Tests and Sanctions

Policy Context

On February 1, 2017, the Trump Administration announced that it was "officially putting Iran on notice" for recent actions that "threaten U.S. friends and allies in the region," including the January 29 test of a ballistic missile and "weapons transfers [to groups such as Houthi rebels in Yemen], support for terrorism, and other violations of international norms." The July 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran, the "Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action" (JCPOA), does not restrict Iran's ballistic missile programs. However, U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorses the JCPOA, prohibits Iran from exporting weaponry and "call[s] upon" Iran "not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches." Yet, Iran has conducted several ballistic missile tests since JCPOA Implementation Day on January 16, 2016—the day Resolution 2231 formally took effect.

Post-Implementation Day Tests

In general, Iran continues to demonstrate progress in developing a variety of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs and MRBMs) and demonstrating their reliability. However, public details regarding Iran's ballistic missile tests and the missile program's technical progress are vague and somewhat conflicting.

On March 8, 2016, Iran test launched two MRBMs—the Qadr-H and Qadr-F (sometimes referred to as the Ghadr). Both are liquid-fueled variants of Iran's Shahab-3 MRBM. The Shahab-3 in turn is based on the North Korean Nodong-1 MRBM, which is derived from Soviet-era SCUD missile technology. The Shahab-3 has likely been used in Iran's space launch program. Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC), which runs Iran's missile programs, said the two March tests were successful, adding that the Qadr-H has a range of 1,700 kilometers (km) and the Qadr-F could strike targets some 2,000 km away. A video showed the missiles were fired in quick succession during military drills, demonstrating a salvo capability that could seriously challenge the capability of missile defense systems. The Associated Press said Iran also test launched several SRBMs, including the Shahab-1 and -2 and the Qiam (which the UN Security Council mentioned as well), during those same military exercises.

There are unverified reports of other Iranian ballistic missile tests. In May 2016, an Iranian military official claimed that an MRBM test launch took place, but this was disputed by Iran's Defense Minister and not confirmed by the White House. In January 2017, Fox News reported a Shahab-3 test launch from December 6, 2016, that had not been reported previously or confirmed, but coincides with an Iranian news agency report that referenced only the earlier March 2016 test launches.

The details of the January 29, 2017, missile launch remain unclear. A National Security Council official described the launch only as a Shahab, without providing further details. A Defense Department official said that the test ended with a failed reentry into the earth's atmosphere where it reportedly exploded after about 1,000 km. Other U.S. officials said it was a failed reentry vehicle test. Some analysts said the test was a "Khorramshahr" MRBM (that some analysts speculate to be a derivative of a North Korean missile) or perhaps even a failed satellite launch. One expert argued that Iran may have attempted to launch a satellite or tested "a nuclear-capable ballistic missile, a land-attack cruise missile, or perhaps even both."

U.S. and U.N. Responses

Subsequent to the January 29 missile test, the Trump Administration stated that it was undertaking a "deliberative process" to formulate responses to such Iranian actions as missile development and "malign" activities in the Middle East—particularly weapons transfers to groups opposed to the United States and its allies. The Administration characterized the latest Iranian test in terms similar to those used by the Obama Administration in 2016 as "in defiance of" Resolution 2231 and as "destabilizing and provocative," but not a "violation" of the resolution. The post-Implementation Day tests might not be considered a violation because of the resolution's characterization of the restriction on Iranian missile development as voluntary (i.e., "calls upon") rather than mandatory. Administration officials also stated that the tests did not violate the JCPOA, which does not contain any restrictions on ballistic missile development, and that U.S. responses to Iran's test would be separate from and not in conflict with U.S. commitments in the JCPOA.

The Administration also followed a process at the United Nations similar to that used by the Obama Administration following Iran's March 2016 missile tests—calling for a U.N. Security Council meeting. The council, as it did in 2016, referred the issue to its sanctions committee for further study. Iran asserts its missile and space launches are not prohibited because Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program, and that such tests will continue no matter how the United States responds. Iranian leaders have stated that Iran's missile forces are intended for deterrent purposes.

On February 3, 2017, the Treasury Department designated 17 individuals and entities based in Iran, China, and the Persian Gulf for sanctions under Executive Order 13382, which targets worldwide proliferation activity. Sanctions issued pursuant to the executive order block all property and interests in property that are subject to U.S. jurisdiction, and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with designated entities. Under Executive Order 13224, the Treasury Department also designated as terrorism-supporting entities eight individuals and companies linked to the IRGC's Qods Force (IRGC-QF)—the unit of the IRGC that supports pro-Iranian governments and groups outside Iran's borders. The Treasury Department action cited the entities as providers of funds and other support to Lebanese Hezbollah and as procurers of aviation spare parts for the IRGC-QF. The designations might not represent the extent of Administration actions against Iran and President Trump stated that all options are open.