North Carolina Journal of International Law

"Connecting North Carolina to the World of International Law"

Iran’s Ballistic Missile Test: A Violation of Resolution 2231?

By: Jack Talton

In late January of this year, Iran conducted a test of a ballistic missile.[1] This was the first of such tests conducted since the Trump administration assumed office.[2]  President Trump responded to the test by tweeting, “Iran is playing with fire – they don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me.”[3] The President was not alone in his response, however, as both former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, and acting press secretary, Sean Spicer, described the launch as defiance and a clear violation of the Security Council Resolution 2231.[4] Yet, this rhetoric leads to the question: did Iran violate Security Council Resolution 2231 with its recent ballistic missile test?

The resolution states, “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.”[5] On its face, the resolution appears to instruct Iran not to engage in ballistic missile activity if the purpose of such activity is to deliver a nuclear weapon. However, if the purpose of the test is not an attempt to develop a vehicle for a nuclear warhead, it would appear that Iran is in compliance with the resolution.

When evaluating Iran’s compliance with the resolution, previous resolutions provide guidance. Security Council Resolution 1929, which was preempted with the passage of resolution 2231, states, “Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology.”[6] The wording here is important, whereas resolution 1929 firmly declares that Iran “shall not” engage in ballistic missile activity, resolution 2231 states that Iran “is called upon” not to engage in ballistic missile tests. Although the difference might appear small, it signals the Council’s retreat from the concrete, restrictive language in the previous resolution. Resolution 2231 may be, therefore, more likely a suggestion against ballistic missile activity, rather than a strict ban.

When bills and resolutions are written, drafters carefully choose their words as their implications matter when it comes time for enforcement. Surely, it would seem that the Council was aware of their wording when they drafted the resolution and understood the ramifications of employing a lighter and more ambiguous suggestion against ballistic missile activities.

While President Trump and his surrogates expressly condoned Iran’s recent missile test as a violation of Resolution 2231, it seems that as long as Iran was not using the test in order to produce a vehicle for a nuclear warhead, the test was within the bounds of the resolution. To quote Peter Kenyon, a writer for NPR, “Iran certainly defied the spirit of the U.N. resolution, but technically didn’t violate it.”[7]

[1] Joshua Berlinger, Iran Conducts First Missile Test Since Trump’s Inauguration, CNN (Jan. 31, 2017, 2:07 PM), [].

[2] Id.

[3] Trump: Iran ‘playing with fire’ after missile test, Al Jazeera, (Feb. 3, 2017), []

[4]Press Secretary Sean Spicer, White House Daily Press Briefing (Feb. 1, 2017, 1:43 PM) (transcript available at [].

[5] S.C. Res. 2231, annex ¶ 3 (Jul. 20, 2015).

[6] S.C. Res. 1929, ¶9 (Jun. 9, 2010).

[7] Peter Kenyon, Did Iran’s Ballistic Missile Test Violate a U.N. Resolution?, NPR, (Feb. 3, 2017, 12:27 PM), []


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