UNITED NATIONS — The United States and Iran traded accusations Tuesday over Tehran's latest ballistic missile test, which the U.N. Security Council discussed behind closed doors without taking any action.
U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley called on the U.N.'s most powerful body to unanimously condemn the "provocative missile test" on Dec. 1, calling it "dangerous and concerning, but not surprising."
At issue is Iran's compliance with the Security Council resolution that endorsed the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear agreement with Western powers, which the Trump administration pulled out of in May. A key provision calls on Iran "not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons" — but it does not explicitly demand that Tehran do so.
The Security Council has been divided since the resolution was adopted over whether the language on ballistic missile launches is permissive or mandatory.
Iran's U.N. Mission said in a press release Tuesday that "all ballistic missile related activities of Iran are in full conformity" with the 2015 Security Council resolution and said that "it is the U.S. that is in absolute violation of the very same resolution" for "its unlawful withdrawal" from the nuclear deal.
Britain, France and Germany — the three remaining Western powers still part of the nuclear agreement — had sent a letter to the council, which was circulated Tuesday, saying Iran's earlier launches of Zolfaqar and Qiam short-range ballistic missiles on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 "are inherently capable of delivering nuclear weapons."
Britain's U.N. Ambassador Karen Pierce told reporters after the closed council meeting that members expressed "a lot of concern" about the Dec. 1 test launch and stressed that the 2015 resolution doesn't say nuclear weapons must be on the missiles.
She called Iran's actions "inconsistent" with the resolution and "part and parcel of Iran's destabilizing activity in the region."
"There is no legitimate reason why Iran should flout the resolution and why their spokesman should pretend that the resolution doesn't call on them not to develop such missiles," Pierce said. "If you wanted to demonstrate to the international community that you were a responsible member of it and you were genuinely interested in regional peace and security, these are not the sorts of missiles you would be test launching."
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Saturday that Iran had test-fired a medium-range ballistic missile capable of carrying multiple warheads "which has a range that allows it to strike parts of Europe and anywhere in the Middle East." He called that a violation of the 2015 resolution.
Warning that Iran's missile testing and missile proliferation is growing, Pompeo condemned Tehran's actions and called for an immediate halt to "all activities related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons."
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis added later Saturday that "right now the strategic level of threat from Iran is less worldwide than (North) Korea's, but it is certainly significant regionally, and it could grow beyond that if it's not dealt with."
Iran's U.N. Mission said that the country's ballistic missile program is purely defensive and a "deterrent tool against foreign threats" and declared that the country isn't violating the resolution.
"As a conventional defensive capability, Iran's ballistic missile program is designed to be exclusively capable of delivering conventional warheads and, as a result, none of Iran's ballistic missiles are 'designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons,'" the mission said. "Iran has never sought to acquire nuclear weapons and never will in the future."
Haley, the U.S. ambassador, accused Iran of deliberately trying "to destabilize the Middle East and defy international norms."
France's U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre said his government has condemned the Dec. 1 launch as "inconsistent" with the 2015 resolution and has called on Iran to immediately halt all activity related to ballistic missiles "designed to be able to carry nuclear weapons,including launches using ballistic missile technology."
Britain's Pierce said the United Kingdom and its European partners have engaged with Iran on foreign policy issues including Yemen and have tried to have a dialogue on ballistic missiles.
"We recognize that Iran has a legitimate role in the region and we recognize that she has legitimate defensive needs," Pierce said. "But we also believe, and our information is that the sorts of missiles she test-launched on Dec. 1 go way beyond legitimate defensive needs. ... We look again to Iran to cease its destabilizing activity and play a constructive role in this very important region."