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Do Iran’s Space Launches Violate UN Security Council Resolution 2231?

As of January 2019, the United States has taken the position that Iran’s recent space launches are in direct contradiction to UN Security Council Resolution 2231.[1] This is not the first time that international powers have called Iran’s conduct into question. The inquiry now, however, is whether Iran’s aim to build a space program falls under the purview of Resolution 2231, since the technology used to launch rockets into space mirrors the technology used to create intercontinental ballistic missiles (“ICBMs”).[2] 

            On July 20, 2015, the UN Security Council, composed of fifteen Member States, endorsed Resolution 2231, thus approving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”) toward Iran’s nuclear program.[3] In effect, Resolution 2231 established a new and thorough inspection process of Iran’s nuclear program and removed all UN sanctions against Iran.[4] 

            Resolution 2231 urges Iran to refrain from activity related to the establishment of nuclear weapons.[5] As Resolution 2231 notes:

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.[6] 

Nonetheless, since the adoption of Resolution 2231, Iran has been accused of engaging in activity related to the establishment of nuclear weapons on multiple occasions.

            On March 29, 2016, the United States, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom wrote a joint letter to the UN Secretary-General and Spain’s Ambassador to the UN alleging that Iran had partaken in ballistic missile testing.[7] The joint letter did not, however, directly claim that Iran’s conduct was a violation of international law.[8] Other delegations dismissed the letter's call for "appropriate responses" on the grounds that, although the missile launches defied the spirit of Resolution 2231, the launches did not actually violate any core nuclear agreement among the countries.[9] According to the obligations set forth by the JCPOA, missile testing is not a direct violation of Resolution 2231.[10] The consensus among nonproliferation experts was that the language of Resolution 2231 acts not as a legally binding directive, but rather acts more like an advisory notice.[11]

            As of today, Resolution 2231 does not require Iran to refrain from developing space-launching vehicles.[12] The question, however, is whether Iran’s developing space technology can be applied to create ICBMs. A 2013 report by the US Air Force reasoned that the technology Iran developed for their 2008 Simorgh space-launch vehicle could be used for ICBMs.[13] Since this report, it has been argued that the Simorgh space-launch vehicle could not easily be transformed into an ICBM because of the major technological changes that such a transformation would require.[14] 

            Reports indicate that it is unlikely that Iran violated Resolution 2231 by merely developing new space-launching vehicles since the language of Resolution 2231 does not even prohibit ballistic missile testing.[15] As a result of Iran’s space launches, countries have continued to stress that there must be some system of cooperation between Iran and other world powers.[16]

Brenna Dorgan is a staff member of Fordham International Law Journal Volume XLII, as well as a member of Fordham’s Jessup International Law Bench Team.

This post is a student blog post and in no way represents the views of the Fordham International Law Journal.

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[1] David E. Sanger & William J. Broad, U.S. Accuses Iran of Using Space Launches as Cover for Missile Program, N.Y. Times (Jan. 3, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/03/world/middleeast/iran-spacecraft-pompeo.html.

[2] Doina Chiacu, U.S. warns Iran on space launches, Tehran rejects concerns, Reuters (Jan. 3, 2019), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-iran/u-s-warns-iran-on-space-launches-tehran-rejects-concerns-idUSKCN1OX114.

[3] Hilary Hurd, Do Iran’s New Space Launchers Violate International Law?, Lawfare (Jan. 17, 2019), https://www.lawfareblog.com/do-irans-new-space-launchers-violate-international-law.

[4] U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015), https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/s_res_2231.pdf.

[5] Chiacu, supra note 2.

[6] U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, supra note 4.

[7] Louis Charbonneau, Exclusive: Iran missile tests were ‘in defiance of’ U.N. resolution – U.S., allies, Reuters (Mar. 29, 2016), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-missiles/exclusive-iran-missile-tests-were-in-defiance-of-u-n-resolution-u-s-allies-idUSKCN0WV2HE.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Kelsey Davenport, Security Council Debates Latest UN Report on Resolution 2231, Arms Control Now (Dec. 13, 2018), https://www.armscontrol.org/blog/2018-12-13/security-council-debates-latest-un-report-resolution-2231.

[11] Peter Kenyon, Did Iran’s Ballistic Missile Test Violate A U.N. Resolution?, NPR (Feb. 3, 2017), https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/02/03/513229839/did-irans-ballistic-missile-test-violate-a-u-n-resolution.

[12] Hurd, supra note 3.

[13] National Air and Space Intelligence Center, Ballistic & Cruise: Missile Threat, (2013).  Available at: https://info.publicintelligence.net/NASIC-BallisticMissileThreat.pdf.

[14] Michael Elleman, Reducing the Risk of Iran Developing an ICBM, (Jul. 2018).  Available at: https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:hbRMGPlGefQJ:https://www.iiss.org/-/media/images/comment/analysis/2018/july/documents/reducing-the-risk-of-iran-developing-an-icbm-report.ashx+&cd=2&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=safari.

[15] Hurd, supra note 3.

[16] Heshmat Alavi, What Comes After French FM’s Iran Visit, Forbes (Mar. 6, 2018), https://www.forbes.com/sites/heshmatalavi/2018/03/06/what-comes-after-french-fms-iran-visit/#18e5f4d95796.