TEL AVIV — Beyond protests and vacuous statements of concern, Israeli experts concede Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his backers in the Western world lack leverage to penalize for imposing far-reaching penalties on Iran for its steadily advancing ballistic missile program.
That's because there's nothing in the nuclear deal negotiated between world powers and Iran to prevent the types of launches that took place last week, less than two months after the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) took effect, experts said.
"There’s nothing in the JCPOA with regard to ballistic missiles because the P5+1 conceded on that point as soon as the negotiations began," Emily Landau, senior research fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, said of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, which that negotiated the landmark Iranian nuclear deal.
There's also nothing, experts here say, in UN Security Council Resolution 2231 from July 2015 that expressly proscribes development and testing of the nuclear-capable missiles Tehran launched to much fanfare over two days last week.
"Resolution 2231 'calls' on Iran not to test nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, but it doesn't 'demand' they do so," Tal Inbar, head of the Space Research Center of the Fighter Institute for Air & Space Strategic Studies, told Defense News.
"There's no punishment … and it's silly for Netanyahu to think otherwise," Inbar said.
Inbar was referring to the third article of Annex B of UN Resolution 2231, which reads: "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."
UN calls to refrain from such activities are to remain in place until "eight years after the JCPOA Adoption Day" – meaning Oct. 18, 2023 – or "until the date on which the IAEA submits a report confirming the Broader Conclusion [of the JCPOA], whichever is earlier."
Following the series of March 8-9 launches, Netanyahu exhorted world powers party to the so-called P5+1 deal to "prevent Iran" from violating UN Security Council decisions.
"It cannot be that Iran will not be punished for this," Netanyahu told Cabinet ministers March 13.
The launches included two Qadr missiles, Iranian versions of the 2,000-kilometer-range North Korean No Dong, inscribed with the Hebrew message: "Israel must be wiped off the face of the Earth."
According to Netanyahu, action by the US and other parties to the deal with Iran is imperative in order to deter Tehran from future provocations and violations of existing agreements.
"I think this is important in and of itself, but it is also important as a test of the major powers' determination to enforce the nuclear agreement with Iran. … We expect answers," Netanyahu said.
Landau noted that officials in the US and some EU member states have expressed concern for what Samantha Power, Washington's ambassador to the UN, described as Iran's "provocative and destabilizing" missile tests.
Power said she would take up the issue in the UN Security Council while EU foreign ministers met Monday in Brussels to discuss potential punitive options.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told reporters in Paris that France "condemns" the Iranian missile tests. "If necessary, sanctions will be enacted," Ayrault said.
"The good news is that we're seeing a lot of pressure from different directions, but the bad news is that it's not likely to change things fundamentally," Landau said.
"I suspect this is going to be an ongoing dispute between the P5+1 and Iran. … There's a dynamic in place whereby Iran views any attempt to level sanctions [relative to nuclear-capable ballistic missiles] as undermining JCPOA. And because P5+1 states want to preserve the JCPOA, this deters them from acting on the missile issue," Landau said.
Shmuel Sandler, a foreign policy specialist at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies – a conservative Israeli think tank – said Netanyahu's options are limited as long as US President Barack Obama remains in office.
"I think Obama's administration will continue to swallow these provocations from Iran, which only emboldens the mullahs to act more brazenly."
He added, "Israel can't do much other than to pressure the US, call upon the P5+1 to do something, and tell the world 'I told you so.'"
Meanwhile, an Israeli government source said Netanyahu is expected to keep "a supportive, but relatively discreet distance" as Republican and Democratic members of the Congress mull extension of US sanctions on the books.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn, told reporters there was "strong bipartisan movement in the Senate" to extend the Iran Sanctions Act, which expires in December.
"Clearly the current ballistic missile sanctions regime is ineffective," March 13 editions of The Hill newspaper quoted Corker as saying.
In a statement last week, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged the Obama administration to "act swiftly to raise these concerns at the UN and take action … including, if necessary, through unilateral action."
Netanyahu declined an invitation to appear at an upcoming annual policy meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, ostensibly for fear of not wanting to be perceived as meddling in a US election cycle.