Unfriendly skies: Iran, North Korea test missile systems over the weekend

The UN Security Council may get a workout this week, thanks to efforts by two rogue nations to conduct banned missile tests over the weekend. Iran conducted exercises with its short-range ballistic missile system, in what looks like a pointed message to US Navy operations in the Persian Gulf region:


Iran test-fired a pair of ballistic missiles this weekend into the Gulf of Oman — with one missile successfully destroying a floating barge approximately 155 miles away, two U.S. officials with knowledge of the launch told Fox News.

The launches of the Fateh-110 short-range ballistic missiles were the first tests of the missile in two years, one official said. It was not immediately clear if this was the first successful test at sea — raising concerns for the U.S. Navy which operate warships in the area. …

The new Iranian short-range ballistic missile launches comes a week after Iran successfully test-fired Russian surface-to-air missiles, part of the S-300 air defense system Russia sent to Iran recently.

According to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Iran has conducted as many as 14 ballistic missile launches since the landmark nuclear agreement in July 2015.

Iran insists that its tests do not violate the deal it cut with the Obama administration last year, but whether that’s true or not is a matter of art. The Obama administration undercut a 2010 UN Security Council resolution with the deal by softening the language on missile testing. NPR explained this last month after a similar test by Iran shortly after Donald Trump took office:

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929, from 2010, says the Security Council “decides that Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology, and that States shall take all necessary measures to prevent the transfer of technology or technical assistance to Iran related to such activities.”

In Resolution 2231, passed in 2015, the Security Council endorsed the nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA. It terminated the provisions of the 2010 resolution and added language deep in one of the annexes saying: “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology, until the date eight years after the JCPOA Adoption Day or until the date on which the IAEA submits a report confirming the Broader Conclusion, whichever is earlier.”

As diplomatic terms of art, “shall not” — which appeared in the 2010 resolution — represents a clear and enforceable prohibition, whereas being “called upon” not to do something is more ambiguous.


In other words, the deal undid that prohibition, which may not make all that much practical difference. Iran had conducted missile tests before the deal, too, in defiance of UNSC Resolution 1929, the most recent of which had been in 2015. Now we have two in rather rapid succession, and this latest seems to be figuratively aimed at the US Navy in the Persian Gulf, as a warning that the aiming might get a lot more literal in the future.

At almost the same time, North Korea offered provocations of their own. Their tests sent a message to Japan as well as the US:

The upside on this test is that the missiles weren’t ICBMs, which would have set off even more alarm bells. Still, as the New York Times reports, it’s setting off enough of them for the US and South Korea to discuss stepping up the timeframe for missile defense updates. That may not be the only upgrade coming either:

During a meeting of the National Security Council, Hwang Kyo-ahn, the acting president of South Korea, called for the early deployment of the American missile defense system known as Thaad, or Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense.

The United States and South Korea have agreed to complete the Thaad deployment within the year. They say it is meant to protect South Korea and American military sites there from North Korean missiles. But China says Thaad would undermine its own nuclear deterrent and has hinted at economic retaliation against South Korea.

Mr. Hwang also called on his government to look aggressively for “ways to effectively strengthen the United States’ extended deterrence” for South Korea, referring to Washington’s ability to deter attacks on its allies with the help of its nuclear forces. Mr. Hwang did not elaborate, but his comment came days after The New York Times reported that President Trump’s national security deputies recently discussed various options against North Korea, including the possibility of reintroducing nuclear weapons to South Korea as a bold warning.

“If North Korea gets a hold of nuclear weapons, its consequences are too horrible to think about,” Mr. Hwang said.


Moving nukes back onto the Korean Peninsula won’t send a message to Pyongyang; it will send a message to Beijing. That message will be that the US and its allies have grown tired of China talking out of both sides of its mouth when it comes to its client regime in the north, and that its inaction will carry significant downsides from now on. With Kim Jong-un conducting international terrorism and using weapons of mass destruction against his own family that lived under China’s protection, Beijing may already have reason enough to rethink the value of propping up the Kim regime for much longer.

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