White House vows response to Iran’s ballistic missile test

By Katie Bo Williams - 02/01/17 07:38 PM EST

The White House on Wednesday provided little clarity about the practical impact of an announcement from national security adviser Michael Flynn that the U.S. is “officially putting Iran on notice.”

“There are a large number of options available to the administration. We are going to take appropriate action and I will not provide any further information today relative to that question,” a senior administration official told reporters.

“The important thing here is we are communicating that Iranian behavior needs to be rethought by Tehran.”The official refused to answer questions about whether the Trump administration had communicated Flynn’s message to Tehran directly, or whether the administration is weighing military action, saying only that the White House is in a “deliberative process.”

In a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room earlier in the day, Flynn vowed a more muscular U.S. response to Iran’s “destabilizing behavior across the Middle East,” including its ballistic missile test launch over the weekend.

The launch violated a United Nations Security Council resolution that prohibits tests of ballistic missiles designed to carry nuclear warheads, Flynn said.

“In these and other similar activities, Iran continues to threaten U.S. friends and allies in the region,” Flynn said, blaming President Barack Obama for allowing Iran to become “emboldened.”

Flynn also cited heightened tensions with Houthi forces in Yemen, stating that “Houthi forces that Iran has trained and armed have struck Emirati and Saudi vessels, and threatened U.S. and allied vessels transiting the Red Sea.”

“As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice,” he said.

The Sunday missile launch was the first Iran has conducted since President Trump took office on Jan. 20. His reaction has been closely watched as a barometer for how the new administration will approach the United States’ historically fraught relationship with Iran.

Trump repeatedly called for a tougher line on Iran, threatening on the campaign trail to tear up former President Obama’s signature nuclear deal, which alleviated some sanctions in exchange for limitations on the country’s nuclear program.

Tehran confirmed the launch on Wednesday, according to local media, but argued that it did not flout the 2015 agreement. The country has long said the program is conventional and used for defensive purposes, and therefore is not subject to the Security Council resolution endorsing the nuclear deal.

The resolution “called upon” Iran to curtail any activity involving ballistic missiles designed to deliver a nuclear payload.

“The missile issue is not part of the nuclear deal,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Tuesday.

Iran’s missiles are “not designed for the capability of carrying a nuclear warhead” but rather are “designed to carry a normal warhead in the field of legitimate defense,” he said.

U.S. officials have provided no details about the type of missile launched, although some reports citing Defense officials indicate that it flew 550 nautical miles and then exploded after a failed re-entry into the atmosphere.

Iran has conducted numerous ballistic missile tests since the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers including the U.S. was inked.

In the final days of Obama’s presidency, the Treasury Department sanctioned nearly a dozen Iranian-linked entities for their role in Iran’s ballistic missile program.

Sunday’s launch drew swift condemnation from Republicans, who have long called for a more aggressive response to Iran, and the Security Council scheduled “urgent consultations” Tuesday afternoon at the request of the U.S.

“The last administration might have been willing to look the other way, but the Iranian regime should be aware this administration and Congress won’t tolerate deliberate defiance of international agreements and bald-faced attacks against our allies any longer,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said in statement Wednesday. “If Iran continues to thumb its nose at the world, there will be consequences.”

Experts and lawmakers have debated the extent of Iran’s support for the Houthi rebels in the Yemeni civil war. The armed movement attacked a Saudi warship off the western coast of Yemen on Monday, killing two and injuring three others, according to Saudi press.

Yemen has been embroiled in civil war since early 2015, when the Houthis took over the capital of Sanaa and President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi fled to the southern city of Aden.
Saudi Arabia, concerned about Iran’s support of the Houthis in a neighboring country, formed a coalition and intervened in support of Hadi.

But while experts generally agree Iran has supplied weapons to the Houthis, some say the influence does not extend to command and control.

Officials insisted Wednesday that Flynn’s warning to Iran — intended to “get their attention” — is separate from the White House’s position on U.S. involvement in the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“These issues pertain to Iranian behavior separate and apart from JCPOA,” a senior official said. “The JCPOA does not in any way, shape or form address the majority of the issues in the region that we are concerned about. It is a very important issue by itself, but Iranian activity — support for terrorism, undermining governments — this behavior is inconsistent with security and prosperity in the region.”

The official was emphatic that the U.S. is not accusing Iran of violating the terms of the nuclear deal — just the U.N. resolution.