Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iran on Thursday to scuttle its plans for satellite launches that the United States says involve technology that could be used in intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
Pompeo stopped short of saying how the United States might react if Iran goes ahead with its announced intention to test three Space Launch Vehicles (SLVs), but his warning suggested that the move could lead to new sanctions.
“The United States will not stand by and watch the Iranian regime’s destructive policies place international stability and security at risk,” Pompeo said in a statement. “We advise the regime to reconsider these provocative launches and cease all activities related to ballistic missiles in order to avoid deeper economic and diplomatic isolation.”
At the end of November, Iranian media reported that the deputy defense minister, Qassem Taqizadeh, said Iran would launch three satellites into space “on various orbits” within a few months. More recently, Iranian news outlets have said the satellites are for telecommunications and suggested a launch is imminent.
Pompeo said the Space Launch Vehicles “incorporate technology that is virtually identical to that used in ballistic missiles.” He said launching them would violate the U.N. Security Council resolution on the 2015 nuclear deal, which “calls upon” Iran to not test ballistic missiles, language that is softer than an outright ban.
Pompeo’s invocation of the Security Council resolution that enshrined the nuclear deal with Iran was somewhat awkward, because President Trump withdrew from the agreement in May. Then in early November, the United States reimposed sanctions that had been lifted under the deal. Iran repeatedly has said the United States is now in violation of the Security Council resolution it voted for, while the International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring compliance has consistently found Iran has been meeting its commitments.
European countries, Russia and China were all part of the negotiations and continue to support the agreement, but they have expressed concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile testing. The United States, Britain, France and Germany, all of which were parties to the agreement, condemned Iran’s decision in 2017 to launch a rocket that it said could deliver a satellite into space.
Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Pompeo’s warning is a signal that more coercive diplomacy will be used to pressure Iran, accompanied by efforts to win the support of Britain, France and Germany. He said it could prod the European Union to impose sanctions against Iranian companies and individuals involved in ballistic missile testing.
Taleblu said Iran’s interest in Space Launch Vehicles disguises its quest to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“Tehran has a tendency to hedge, and as evidenced by its nuclear program, doesn’t mind making marginal advances as long as it remains on the path towards its ultimate goal,” he said.
Though Iran has not yet perfected a functional ICBM, Taleblu said, the satellite launch suggests “that is a path it’s going to go down.”
Pompeo said Iran has launched numerous ballistic missiles since the Security Council resolution was adopted three years ago, most recently in early December.
“The United States has continuously cautioned that ballistic missile and SLV launches by the Iranian regime have a destabilizing effect on the region and beyond,” he said. “France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and many nations from around the world have also expressed deep concern.”