(CNSNews.com) – A senior State Department official played down concerns Tuesday that the nuclear agreement she helped to negotiate with Iran is silent on its ballistic missiles. If Iran is prevented from acquiring a nuclear weapon, then the fact that it may develop delivery systems would be “almost irrelevant,” she said.
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman disputed the notion that gaps in the “Joint Plan of Action” (JPOA) agreement – such as the question of missiles – constitute loopholes which Iran could exploit.
“We don’t consider the gaps that exist loopholes, because this is not a final agreement,” she said. “This is a first step.”
The JPOA reached in November between Iran and the six world powers known as the P5+1 offers Tehran limited sanctions relief in exchange for limited curbs on its nuclear program. During a six-month interim period (open to extension if the parties agree), the parties are meant to negotiate a comprehensive final agreement.
The absence of any reference to ballistic missiles in the JPOA raised eyebrows, since five out of the six U.N. Security Council resolutions on the Iran nuclear issue adopted between 2006 and 2010 cite the ballistic missile threat.
For instance, the 2010 resolution – the only one of the six passed under the Obama administration – states that “Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology.” All U.N. member-states are expected to “take all necessary measures to prevent the transfer of technology or technical assistance to Iran related to such activities.”
Iran’s missile development program has been speeding ahead in recent years. The U.S. National Air and Space Intelligence Center in a report last year said that in the intelligence community’s assessment, “Iran could develop and test an ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] capable of reaching the United States by 2015.”
“Why did you all not in this agreement in any way address the delivery mechanisms, the militarizing of nuclear arms?” ranking member Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) asked Sherman.
“We have a major loophole in the research and development area that everyone acknowledges, and yet we are going to allow them over this next year to continue to perfect the other piece of this, which is the delivery mechanism. Why did we do that?”
“It is true that in these first six months we’ve not shut down all of their production of any ballistic missile that could have anything to do with delivery of a nuclear weapon,” Sherman conceded. “But that is indeed going to be part of something that has to be addressed as part of a comprehensive agreement.”
(The carefully-crafted JPOA text does not include the words “missile” or “delivery system.” It does say that the final agreement will deal with the applicable Security Council resolutions, “with a view toward bringing to a satisfactory conclusion the U.N. Security Council’s consideration of this matter.”)
Sherman added, “If we are successful in assuring ourselves and the world community that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon, cannot obtain a nuclear weapon, then them not having a nuclear weapon makes delivery systems almost – not entirely, but almost – irrelevant,” she said.
Even if a comprehensive nuclear deal were able to finally and irreversibly remove the nuclear weapons threat, Iran could continue to threaten the Middle East, parts of Europe and U.S. forces stationed in the region with missiles tipped with conventional warheads, or potentially even chemical or biological ones.
Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged as much in response to a suggestion by his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in December that the Iran nuclear deal would make U.S. missile defense plans in Europe redundant.
A senior U.S. State Department official said Kerry had made clear to Lavrov that the missile defense shield “it is not only about Iran’s nuclear program, it’s also about its ballistic missile program, which allows it to deliver other forms of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] as well, and that is concerning and requiring of strong missile defense protections.”
Deferred-action Iran sanctions legislation which senators led by committee chairman Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) are trying to advance – in the face of a White House veto threat – aims to address the missile concern, among others.
Among the requirements for Iran to avoid being targeted by tough new sanctions contained in the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, which now has the support of 59 senators, the president would have to certify that Iran has not conducted any tests of ballistic missiles with a range exceeding 500 kilometers (310 miles), the point from which missiles are classified as intermediate-range.
Iran has already test-fired missiles with much longer ranges, including the Sejil-2, a solid-fueled, two-stage weapon with a range of around 1,200 miles, capable of reaching as far as south-eastern Europe.
Its proven ability to put a satellite into space, in 2009 and again in 2011, has demonstrated further advances in ICBM-applicable technologies, according to the Pentagon.
Iran has announced plans for new satellite launches in the coming weeks.