It's worth taking a brief pause to go over what the Iran deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), actually involved — and what it didn't.
Under the deal, a group of countries — the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, Germany, and the European Union — agreed to lift crippling sanctions imposed on Iran's nuclear program, giving it greater access to the global economy.
In return, Iran agreed to take concrete steps to curb its nuclear program, limiting it to strictly peaceful applications, and to allow intrusive inspections of key nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure compliance.
That's it. There was nothing in the deal that said Iran would agree not to test ballistic missiles, or to stop sponsoring terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, or to improve its human rights record at home.
And that's no accident. "By design, the JCPOA is focused on one issue only: Iran's nuclear program," explains Suzanne DiMaggio, an Iran expert at the New America think tank. You see, it's not that the Obama administration and the other countries involved wouldn't have loved to get a deal that included all those other things. It's just that Iran flat-out refused to budge on any of that stuff.
The only thing they were willing to negotiate on was their nuclear program. That's it. Because the Obama administration felt that Iran's nuclear program was the biggest, most pressing threat, they agreed to leave all that other stuff out and focus the deal exclusively on the nuclear program.
But, by that same token, the agreement doesn't preclude the US or any other country from punishing Iran for its non-nuclear activities. That's why the US was able to impose sanctions after Iran carried out missile tests on July 18.
"You could say it's a terrible deal because it doesn't cover Hezbollah, and Syria, and Yemen, and missiles, and human rights," says Ernest Moniz, Obama's energy secretary and top Iran deal negotiator. "That's not what the agreement is."
And by the very narrow terms of the agreement they did sign, Iran is in compliance. "There's no legitimate grounds for saying that Iran is violating the deal, or acting inconsistent with spirit of the deal," says Kelsey Davenport, a nonproliferation expert at the Arms Control Association.
So that's that, right? Well, not exactly.
The UN Security Council resolution that endorsed the Iran deal includes language specifically about Iran's ballistic missiles. "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, until the date eight years after the JCPOA Adoption Day," it reads.
The phrase "called upon" is pretty ambiguous. It doesn't necessarily mean "forbidden." It basically just means "it would be nice if you didn't." So when Iran tests ballistic missiles — as it has both in 2016 and in 2017 — it's probably violating at least the spirit of that UN resolution, if not the letter of it.
"The ballistic missile tests are inconsistent with UN Security Council resolutions, but this is separate from the nuclear deal," Davenport noted.