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Iran missile test sparks concern over nuclear deal implementation

Story highlights

  • The Iranian missile test is raising questions about Iran's commitment to international protocols
  • he United States and its Western allies, like France, issued swift verbal condemnation of Iran's actions

Washington (CNN)Iran is once again testing the international community.

A United Nations panel announced this week that Iran violated a U.N. Security Council resolution when it tested a ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead in October.
    Coming just months before the international community prepares to implement the landmark nuclear deal brokered between Iran, the U.S. and five other world powers this summer, the Iranian missile test is raising questions about Iran's commitment to international protocols and the ability -- and will -- of the U.S. and the international community to enforce the terms of the controversial nuclear accord.
    The response from the international community, so far, has been a tepid one, sowing some doubt about its ability to agree on what would constitute a violation of the nuclear deal and which violations should be punished.
    Russia and China were quick to cast doubt Tuesday on the findings announced Tuesday by the U.N. Security Council's Panel of Experts that Iran's October test of its medium-range Emad rocket constituted a violation of Security Council resolution 1929. The resolution prohibits Iran from testing ballistic missiles capable of delivering a nuclear weapon.
    That resolution is separate from the agreements made between Iran and the international community as part of the nuclear accord reached in July.
    Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan on Wednesday dismissed the international objections, saying that the missile test was meant "to tell the world that the Islamic Republic of Iran acts based on its national interests."
    "No power anywhere in the world can decide for our nation and country, and (Iran) will not accept any restriction on this issue," Dehqan was quoted as saying by Iran's state news agency, IRNA.
    The United States and its Western allies, like France, issued swift verbal condemnation of Iran's actions and called on the U.N. Security Council to hold Iran accountable for the violation.
    Speaking at the U.N. on Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power criticized Iran's violation -- as well as China and Russia's defense of Iran.
    "This council cannot allow Iran to feel that it can violate our resolutions with impunity," Power said. "Some council members may not like those resolutions, but they are our resolutions."
    White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest called the missile test "a serious matter that undermines regional stability."
    But beyond words, the U.S. has yet to take concrete action to rebuke Iran's violation, such as through economic sanctions. Two experts -- a supporter and an opponent of the Iranian nuclear deal -- told CNN that they did not foresee the U.S. taking much more than symbolic action in light of the high stakes of the impending nuclear agreement.
    "The administration is deeply concerned that the Iranians won't implement the agreement and that they'll walk away from the (nuclear) agreement," said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who opposes the deal. "There is a deep reluctance on the part of the administration to impose sanctions for any violations."
    Even though sanctions in response to Iran's missile test would be unrelated to the nuclear agreement, some fear that punishing Tehran too strongly could cause Iran to withdraw from the nuclear pact.
    The ballistic missile test violation would not contravene the nuclear agreement brokered with Iran once it goes into effect in early 2016. Under the new deal, Iran will be able to conduct ballistic missile tests -- a concession to Iran included in the deal -- meaning Iran could have simply waited until early next year.
    But Dubowitz argued that Iran, which has been known to incrementally cheat on international agreements, used the missile launch to challenge the West and gauge its reaction to a breach of a Security Council resolution.
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    Dubowitz called for a heavy-handed response to what he views as a "major violation" but said he is "deeply skeptical this administration will resort to tough economic sanctions."
    "The only way the Iranian regime has ever been deterred from bad behavior or has sort of stood up and said, 'Wait a second, the Americans might be serious,' was when the administration and Congress have slapped very serious sanctions on Iran," Dubowitz said.
    A lack of a response could send a signal to Iran that the U.S. will turn the other cheek on small, incremental violations of the nuclear agreement.
    Gary Samore, who previously served as President Barack Obama's top arms control adviser, said he believes the White House is "nervous that if they over-respond to the missile test, they will jeopardize implementation of a nuclear deal."
    But Samore, an early skeptic who eventually came out in support of the Iran deal, said the administration faces a tough calculus, as it must still send a message to the Iranians that missile test violations won't be tolerated without pulling the rug out from under the deal.
    "By doing nothing to respond, we run the risk of potentially indicating to the Iranians that we're willing to tolerate non-nuclear activity in a way that could make the Iranians misbehave more than they would otherwise," Samore said.
    Samore suggested the administration should offer up a set of targeted economic sanctions designed to hit individuals or entities tied to Iran's ballistic missile activity -- sanctions that Samore said would be largely symbolic but would send a message to Iran that the U.S. won't ignore its bad behavior.
    Iran's missile launch is also a test of the international community's ability to coalesce to take action to address potential Iranian violations of the nuclear deal.
    While the nuclear deal lays out in detail how the international community should address suspected violations of the deal, Russian and Chinese skepticism of the ballistic missile test are sending red flags about the two countries' willingness to cooperate should Iran violate the terms of the more consequential nuclear deal.
    "This sets a bad precedent for our ability to vigorously enforce the nuclear agreement going forward," Dubowitz warned.