UK, France and Germany raise alarm about Iranian nuclear missiles

What happened: France, Germany and the UK, (the so-called E3) have warned the United Nations that Iran is developing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. In a letter to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, the E3 allege that Iran tested a Shahab-3 missile variant “equipped with a manoeuvrable re-entry vehicle” that could deliver a nuclear weapon. According to the Missile Technology Control Regime, such a system could deliver a payload weighing at least 500kg.

  • The letter claims such activity is “inconsistent” with UN Security Council resolution 2231 that restricts Iranian ballistic missiles.
  • Iran denied the allegation, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif writing on Twitter that the letter was a “desperate falsehood” designed “to cover up their miserable incompetence in fulfilling the “bare minimum of their own JCPOA obligations.”
  • The letter also cited three other examples of Iranian activities the E3 viewed as “inconsistent” with the resolution: the launch of a ballistic missile on 24 July, the launch on 2 August of a Borkan-3 liquid-propelled medium-range ballistic missile by Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the unsuccessful launch of a Safir satellite launch vehicle on 29 August.

Context: UN Security Council Resolution 2231 requires Iran not to “undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology.”

  • The UK, France and Germany have gradually been shifting towards the US position as Iran has violated the restrictions in the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal regarding uranium enrichment, use of advanced centrifuges, uranium stockpiles and use of the enrichment facility at Fordow. In September the E3 said: “The time has come for Iran to accept negotiation on a long-term framework for its nuclear programme as well as on issues related to regional security, including its missiles programme and other means of delivery.”
  • On 12 November the E3 criticised Iran for failing to cooperate with IAEA inspectors and said it would consider use of the dispute mechanism within the JCPOA if Iran did not return to full compliance with its commitments in the nuclear deal.

Looking ahead: Iran is pursuing a strategy of applying pressure on the remaining signatories of the JCPOA to facilitate trade to assist the Iranian economy which is struggling under US sanctions. The political conditions don’t appear to exist for progress towards a new grand bargain with Iran and Iranian leaders have repeatedly said they will only enter such talks if the US lifts sanctions.

  • The Iranian regime has faced waves of domestic unrest in protest at the increased cost of fuel and cracked down hard by killing protestors and shutting off the internet. At the same time Iranian influence is under threat in Lebanon and Iraq as its key allies have been forced to resign in the face of large domestic protests.

On 19 December a UN Security Council meeting is expected to discuss Iran. Israel’s Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz welcomed the E3 letter and has instructed Israeli diplomats to prepare a “complete list of Iranian violations of the nuclear agreement” for the meeting.

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