Fear of Undermining Iran Deal Complicates Obama Administration’s Response to Missile Tests

The Obama administration’s careful reaction to Iran’s latest round of ballistic missile tests showcases the difficult balance the United States and its allies face in deciding how forcefully to push back, without undermining last summer’s nuclear deal.

Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s missile tests conducted by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran did not violate the nuclear deal, the administration says, although the actions are likely inconsistent with a United Nations Security Council Resolution related to the issue.

That is because, from the beginning, the Obama administration has taken pains to say that the nuclear deal, which went into effect in January, was designed only to restrict Iran’s nuclear program.

The administration argued that Iran’s nuclear capability represented the greatest threat and that getting Iran to give up its ballistic missile program—which Tehran sees as a matter of national defense—and to restrain its involvement in conflicts across the region—was unrealistic.

The distinction matters, critics say, because even if the deal succeeds in containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions for the next 10-15 years, as it’s designed to, the U.S.’s commitment to seeing it succeed means Tehran can always threaten to walk away from the deal if the U.S. punishes too hard.

“In the discussions of whether to proceed with the nuclear deal, the Obama administration said repeatedly this deal is only about nuclear matters,” said Patrick Clawson, who directs the Iran Security Initiative at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The critics of the administration have said it will be afraid to take actions to oppose Iran’s other destabilizing behavior out of concern that Iran may threaten to back out of the nuclear deal.”

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