Iran missile tests reignite sanctions fight

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Iran's ballistic missile tests are reigniting the debate over sanctions and putting new pressure on the Obama administration.

Republicans, and many Democrats, including Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonJuan Williams: When WikiLeaks leaked my cell number Dems brace for immigration battle if Clinton wins Ohio GOP chairman will vote Trump: report MORE, are calling for a strong response, after Iran test-fired ballistic missiles twice last week, in defiance of international law. They were the first tests since an international nuclear deal with Iran took effect earlier this year.

Lawmakers are particularly incensed over the second day of testing, when Iran reportedly fired missiles with the words "Israel must be wiped off the face of the earth" written in Hebrew -- an explicit threat to a close U.S. ally.

Republicans say the test is a blatant violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which calls upon Iran not to conduct any launches of ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering a nuclear weapon. Iran has denied that the tests did so.

GOP lawmakers seized upon the tests as evidence Iran could not be trusted to uphold the nuclear deal, which lifted heavy sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits to its nuclear program, and blasted the Obama administration as naive.

"Conducting ballistic missile tests is akin to throwing dirt in the face of the entire free world. And it reveals Iran has little intention of abiding by the terms of the nuclear deal it agreed to just months ago," said Sen. Tom CottonTom CottonCotton not ruling out 2020 White House bid GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election GOP chairman demands number of immigrants granted accidental citizenship MORE (R-Ark.).

Republicans say the U.S. sanctions imposed by the administration earlier this year in response to similar tests in October and November are too weak, and vowed to press ahead with new sanctions.

"Clearly the current ballistic missile sanctions regime is ineffective," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerBob CorkerGlobal climate pact may bump into Senate roadblock GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election Trump appoints fundraiser to national security advisory council MORE (R-Tenn.) said earlier this week.

He told reporters the Senate is working to extend the Iran Sanctions Act, which expires at the end of the year and hinted at other sanctions legislation to cover Iran's conventional weapons and ballistic missile development.

"There is already a strong bipartisan movement in the Senate to act," he said.

Several Democrats, particularly those who did not support the nuclear deal, are also calling for a tougher response.

“The Administration should act swiftly to raise these concerns at the United Nations and take action to hold all parties involved responsible for their actions, including, if necessary, through unilateral action," said Sen. Ben CardinBen CardinSanders, Dem senators press Obama to halt ND pipeline Dems to McConnell: Pass 'clean' extension of Iran sanctions Top Foreign Relations Dem: US needs to 'revisit' approach to Russia MORE (D-Md.), the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who opposed the deal.

Even Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner and a staunch proponent of the nuclear deal, called for new sanctions, although she did not say whether those measures should come from the U.S. alone or the international community.

"Iran should face sanctions for these activities, and the international community must demonstrate that Iran's threats toward Israel will not be tolerated," she said in a statement.  

Those calls are putting the administration on the defensive.

Officials say the U.S. will raise the missile tests during UN Security Council talks on Monday. The administration also said on Thursday that it would look at any legislation put forward by Congress, but is confident there are already measures in place to apply pressure on Iran if it violates UN resolutions.

“Right now we’re still at the stage where we’re looking at these reports, gathering the facts, trying to determine if indeed – I mean, with the obvious understanding that something happened," said State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner.

Officials also emphasize that the ballistic missile program falls outside of the nuclear deal, an argument that Republicans criticize.

“Instead of forcefully condemning Iran’s dangerous missile tests, the White House is twisting itself into pretzels to explain how they don’t violate the president’s deeply flawed nuclear deal," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said Wednesday.

Toner said Thursday that Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryWhat would a Hillary Clinton presidency look like? 5 reasons Trump's final debate performance sealed his 2016 coffin US pledges to do all it can to fight 'grave threat' of nuclear North Korea MORE had conveyed his concerns to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, but would not disclose how the message was delivered.

Critics are skeptical the administration will take action against Iran, out of concern it could break the Iran deal.

"The Iranians seem to believe they can continue defying the U.S. and U.N. with absolute impunity, perhaps because they think the administration is too invested in the Iran deal to impose real consequences," said Omri Ceren, a managing director at The Israel Project, a D.C.-based organization that opposed the final Iran deal.

The administration, though, is pushing back against that idea, insisting the U.S. and allies will redouble their efforts to limit Iran’s ballistic missile program.

“Let me vigorously push back on the notion that we’re somehow going to give Iran a free pass on ballistic missile tests just because we have a [nuclear deal] in place,” Toner said.

“There is more that we can do to enforce sanctions that are in place. There are also a set of restrictions about what kind of equipment and materials can be shipped to Iran. And there’s more that we can do to work with our partners to interdict those kinds of shipments that may include some of those illicit products,” he said.

“So this is something that we’ve been mindful of for quite some time. It’s the reason that we pursued the international agreement to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Toner added.

“And as we learn more information about what exactly they have done, we’ll determine an appropriate response.”