Expected Council Action
In June, the Council expects to receive the Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of resolution 2231, which endorsed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear programme. The Council also expects reports from the Joint Commission, established by the parties to the JCPOA to oversee its implementation, and from the Council’s 2231 facilitator, Ambassador Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve (Belgium). Briefings are expected from Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo, Pecsteen, and a representative of the EU in its capacity as coordinator of the Joint Commission.
Key Recent Developments
The recent escalation of tensions in US-Iran relations added another layer of uncertainty to the eventual fate of the JCPOA. Over the past several weeks, the US has considerably increased economic pressure on Iran in an effort to change what the US perceives as Iran’s destabilising behaviour in the region. In April, the US decided not to renew waivers on Iran’s oil exports past their expiry on 2 May. The waivers granted exclusive rights to eight countries to procure Iran’s oil despite previously imposed US sanctions. The US decision further isolated Iran’s oil sector from world markets and compromised the country’s main source of revenue. In targeting Iran’s nuclear sector, the US also ended waivers that allowed Iran to transfer enriched uranium out of the country and to store or transfer heavy water. The US introduced another round of sanctions on 8 May targeting Iran’s aluminium, copper, iron and steel sectors.
On 5 May, US National Security Advisor John Bolton announced that the US would reposition the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. Besides noting that this move is a response to a credible Iranian threat to US interests in the region, Bolton did not provide further information.
Iran responded to the latest round of US sanctions on 8 May by issuing a 60-day ultimatum to the remaining parties to the JCPOA (China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the EU) to provide Iran with sanctions relief on its oil and financial sectors. Without relief, Iran said it would resume uranium enrichment activities and construction of the Arak nuclear reactor, which would constitute a direct violation of the JCPOA. A day later, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and the foreign ministers of France, Germany and the UK issued a joint statement calling on Iran to adhere to its commitments under the JCPOA while also noting that they would continue efforts to facilitate legitimate trade with Iran. The statement rejected Iran’s ultimatum, however, and called on Iran to avoid any actions that could raise tensions further.
Mogherini has continued to emphasise that the EU remains committed to preserving the JCPOA as long as Iran continues to comply with its commitments under the deal. Earlier this year, France, Germany and the UK set up a mechanism that would mitigate the effects of US sanctions in Iran and facilitate some trade between the EU and Iran. However, this mechanism has yet to become operational.
On 13 May, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) reported that four oil cargo vessels had been damaged in an apparent sabotage plot off its coast. Saudi Arabia’s government said that two of its vessels were targeted. The two other vessels were UAE-flagged ship and a Norwegian-flagged commercial ship. A day later, the Saudi government reported that some of its oil-pumping sites were targeted in an apparent drone attack. Subsequently, Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are allegedly receiving support from Iran, claimed responsibility for the drone attack.
On 15 May, the US State Department ordered the evacuation of non-essential government employees from Iraq, citing a credible threat. The US has previously raised concerns over Iran’s influence in Iraq, particularly among Shi’a militias in the country.
In April, the US designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organisation. This is the first time the US has applied this type of designation to a component of another state’s government. The IRGC is under direct control of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and operates independently of Iran’s traditional armed forces. The US has accused the IRGC of providing financial and weapons support for terrorist organisations in the region, including various Shiite militias in Iraq.
Human Rights-Related Developments
During its 40th session, the Human Rights Council adopted on 22 March a resolution on human rights in Iran with 22 votes in favour, seven against and 18 abstentions. The resolution extended the mandate of the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran for one year (A/HRC/40/18). It also called on the government to cooperate fully with the special rapporteur and to permit access to visit the country.
Issues and Options
The recent developments surrounding the JCPOA and rising tensions between the US and Iran present the Council with a number of issues. Chief among these at the moment is ensuring full compliance with resolution 2231 by parties to the JCPOA and the wider UN membership.
The Council will follow closely the developments related to the recent incidents in the Persian Gulf and a build-up of military assets in the area. An option for the Council would be to urge all sides to use restraint and avoid provocations that could lead to full-on escalation.
The Council will need to assess the implications of the US withdrawal from the JCPOA and the impact of the US’s unilateral sanctions measures on the implementation of resolution 2231, which endorsed the agreement. Although Council members will be able to address some of these issues during the regular meeting on implementation of resolution 2231, an option for the Council would be to organise an informal meeting in consultations with the 2231 facilitator to further consider this issue. Such a meeting could provide an opportunity for a more frank exchange among Council members.
Iran has announced that it could resume nuclear-related activities it halted after signing the JCPOA if the remaining signatories to the agreement fail to provide financial relief from the US sanctions. Should Iran breach the agreement, other signatories to the JCPOA could formally notify the Council, which would initiate a so-called “snapback mechanism” that would effectively reinstate sanctions on Iran that were in place prior to the adoption of resolution 2231.
Council and Wider Dynamics
The decision of the current US administration to withdraw from the JCPOA has further isolated the US from the rest of the Council members in respect of the general position on the agreement. Most Council members—among them China, France, Germany, the UK and Russia, which are parties to the agreement—maintain their position that the JCPOA remains valid and that they will continue to adhere to its provisions. While Iran has been highly critical of the unilateral US moves, it has remained in compliance with the agreement. However, following the latest round of US sanctions, on 8 May Iran indicated that it would restart uranium enrichment activities if the remaining signatories do not mitigate the effects of US sanctions within 60 days. The Council dynamics could significantly change should Iran breach the agreement because it could potentially lose the support of the remaining signatories to the JCPOA, most notably the EU countries, which are heavily invested in preserving the agreement.
In addition to issues related to the JCPOA, the Council will have to contend with the risk that has been signalled of a possible military confrontation between the US and Iran, which could potentially alter the Council dynamics further. In light of the recent escalation of tensions in the region, EU members, China and Russia have called for restraint on the part of both Iran and the US. China and Russia have said publicly that the recent US actions contributed to the heightening of tensions.
UN DOCUMENTS ON IRAN
|Security Council Resolution|
|20 July 2015S/RES/2231||This was a resolution that endorsed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran.|
|Security Council Press Statement|
|2 April 2019SC/13762||Council members reaffirmed their commitment to advance the goals of the Non Proliferation Treaty.|
|6 December 2018S/2018/1089||This was the sixth report of the Secretary-General on the implementation of Security Council resolution 2231 (2015).|
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|2 April 2019S/PV.8500||This was a briefing by Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu.|
|12 December 2018S/PV.8418||The Council held its semiannual briefing on the implementation of resolution 2231.|