Expected Council Action
In December, the Council is scheduled 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
Tensions between the US and Iran have been on a steady rise since the US announced its withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018. The US administration introduced a policy of maximum pressure to counter what it regards as Iran’s destabilising behaviour in the region, and has imposed unilateral sanctions targeting Iran’s economic sectors and its leadership. Iran has responded by gradually transgressing its obligations under the JCPOA and has conditioned its return to full compliance on sanctions relief from the agreement’s remaining parties. Recent security incidents in the Persian Gulf have added another layer of complexity and presented a threat to regional stability.
On 18 November, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran had exceeded its stockpile limits of heavy water which under the JCPOA should be kept below 130 metric tons. Earlier in November, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, announced that Iran would start injecting uranium gas into centrifuges at its Fordow nuclear facility and resume production of enriched uranium at the site. Under the terms of the JCPOA, Iran is not permitted to undertake any enrichment activities at Fordow until 2030. In July, Iran first breached its enriched uranium stockpile limit of 300 kilograms and then started enriching uranium beyond the JCPOA-set limit of 3.67 percent. Rouhani has emphasised that Iran could reverse its actions if the remaining parties to the agreement uphold their commitments and provide it with sanctions relief.
Regional tensions escalated after the 14 September attacks on the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, causing heavy damage. The Houthis claimed that they had launched the attack using ten drones. The scale, precision and range of the strikes, about 500 miles from Yemeni territory, raised doubts about this claim. The US charged that Iran had been responsible and that the operation had not originated from Yemen. During the high-level week at the UN General Assembly, the leaders of France, Germany and the UK issued a joint statement declaring Iran responsible for the attacks. Emphasising the need for diplomatic engagement and a de-escalation of tensions, these countries reiterated their commitment to preserving the JCPOA. They also urged Iran to return to full compliance and reverse steps taken to undermine the agreement.
The Council held its last regular meeting on the implementation of resolution 2231 on 26 June. Earlier in June, Council members met first under “any other business” on 13 June to discuss the security incidents in the Gulf of Oman, including the attacks on commercial ships. Then on 23 June, the Council held consultations after Iran’s downing of a US reconnaissance drone. Iran had said that the drone violated its airspace, while the US claimed that it was shot down over international waters. Following the consultations, Council members issued press elements urging the concerned parties to show restraint and end tensions but did not assign responsibility for the attacks. The US has consistently blamed Iran for the June attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf, an accusation Iran has denied.
Key Issues and Options
The Council is facing a growing number of issues related to Iran and non-proliferation. At the moment, the primary concern for the Council is to ensure full implementation of resolution 2231 by the parties to the JCPOA and the wider UN membership.
Over the past months, Iran has breached several of its JCPOA commitments. Should the remaining parties to the agreement fail to resolve Iran’s noncompliance issues, an option would be to formally notify the Council, which would initiate the so-called “snapback mechanism” that would effectively reinstate the sanctions that were in place before the adoption of resolution 2231.
The Council will need to assess the implications of the US withdrawal from the JCPOA and the impact of the unilateral US sanctions measures on the implementation of resolution 2231, which endorsed the agreement. While Council members usually address some of these issues during the semi-annual briefings on implementation of resolution 2231, an option for the Council would be to organise a private meeting in consultations to further consider this issue. Such a meeting could provide an opportunity for a more frank exchange among Council members.
The standoff between the US and Iran over the JCPOA has also affected the regional security situation and heightened military tensions in the Persian Gulf. Given the overall military build-up in the region and the potential for open confrontation, the Council will follow this situation closely. Should tensions escalate further, the Council could consider making a more formal pronouncement urging restraint on all sides.
Before the current US administration took office, the Council was united in its support for the JCPOA and had endorsed the agreement unanimously when it adopted resolution 2231. The May 2018 decision by the US to formally withdraw from the agreement has left the Council divided on this issue. While it criticised the unilateral US actions, Iran remained in compliance with JCPOA provisions for over a year after the US withdrawal. The US has claimed that Iran’s destabilising behaviour in the region runs contrary to the spirit of the agreement, and has maintained a maximum pressure campaign on Iran, imposing a series of unilateral sanctions. Most other 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, reiterate the importance of preserving it, and say that they will continue to adhere to its provisions.
These members have, however, expressed concern over Iran’s latest violations of the agreement and have called on Iran to return to full compliance. Given its continued breaches of the JCPOA, Iran is at risk of losing support from the other parties to the agreement and the wider Council membership.
In addition to non-proliferation issues, the Council has also been drawn into consideration of the regional security situation. The attacks on the Saudi oil facilities and oil tankers in the Persian Gulf present a risk for potential military confrontation between the US and its allies, and Iran. The Council has been united in calling for de-escalation and restraint by all parties. While some Council members were initially cautious, the US has been adamant in assigning Iran direct responsibility for the Saudi oil facility attack, and on September 23 France, Germany and the UK joined the US in this position.
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.|
|21 June 2019S/2019/514||This was the Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of resolution 2231.|
|Security Council Letter|
|18 June 2019S/2019/488||This was the report of the Joint Commission on the status of the Procurement Working Group’s decisions and on any implementation issues.|
|Security Council Meeting Record|
|26 June 2019S/PV.8564||This was was the semi-annual briefing on the implementation of resolution 2231.|
|Security Council Press Statement|
|2 April 2019SC/13762||Council members reaffirmed their commitment to advance the goals of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.|
|12 September 2019S/2019/738||This was the IAEA report on verification and monitoring in Iran in light of resolution 2231.|