Expected Council Action
In June, the Council is scheduled to receive the Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of resolution 2231, which in 2015 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). 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, are also expected to brief the Council in a videoconference.
Key Recent Developments
The tensions between the US and Iran have shown no signs of abating and there is renewed uncertainty over the fate of the JCPOA. The US announced its withdrawal from the agreement in May 2018 and has since continued to impose unilateral sanctions on Iran as a part of its broader strategy of maximum pressure. Although still formally in the agreement, Iran has reduced its nuclear-related commitments and has gradually resumed uranium enrichment activities beyond JCPOA–mandated limits. Iran has emphasised that its actions are reversible and that its return to full compliance with the JCPOA is conditioned on sanctions relief from the agreement’s remaining parties.
Under the JCPOA, the first set of restrictions, including a travel ban and arms-related transfers, is set to expire in October. The US has publicly stated its intention to prevent the expiry of the arms embargo. In late April and early May, several sources indicated that the US had shared with Germany, France and the UK a draft resolution that would extend indefinitely the restrictions on arms transfers. In a 29 April press conference at the State Department, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the US would not allow Iran to acquire conventional weapons after the expiry of the ban in October and emphasised that the US would work with other Council members to extend this prohibition. If the Council is unable to take action on this, Pompeo said the US would explore other possibilities to assure that the arms embargo stays in place after October.
In May, both Pompeo and US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said publicly that the US could possibly renew the arms embargo on Iran by triggering a snapback mechanism envisaged in resolution 2231. The resolution stipulates that any concerned party to the JCPOA can notify the Council about an issue that it considers a significant violation of the agreement. The sanctions in place before the adoption of resolution 2231 would then resume 30 days after the notification, unless the Council adopts a resolution that continues the lifting of the sanctions. Such a resolution could be vetoed by any permanent member that believes there has been significant Iranian non-compliance. Although the US announced its withdrawal from the agreement in 2018, resolution 2231 listed it as one of the parties to the JCPOA. Pompeo and Hook have thus argued that the US would have a legal right to trigger a snapback mechanism.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) announced on 22 April that it had successfully launched military satellite Noor into the Earth’s orbit. According to the IRGC, the satellite will be used primarily for reconnaissance and communication purposes. On 13 May, the US initiated a meeting under the “2231 format” to discuss this issue. In a statement issued following the meeting, the US emphasised that the launch represents another instance of Iran violating resolution 2231. It also condemned Iran for violating the arms embargo under resolution 2231 and accused it of supplying weapons to terrorist organizations and proxy forces in the region.
Key Issues and Options
The primary concern for the Council is to ensure full implementation of resolution 2231 by the remaining parties to the JCPOA and the wider UN membership.
Iran has committed several breaches of its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA. Should the remaining parties to the agreement fail to resolve Iran’s non–compliance issues, an option would be to notify the Council formally, which would initiate the snapback mechanism that would effectively reinstate the sanctions that were in place before the adoption of resolution 2231.
The expiry of arms-related restrictions on Iran in October presents another significant issue for the Council, given the deep divisions among permanent members on how to address the embargo. An option is for Council members to organise a private meeting to further discuss this specific issue, given that most of the deliberations are taking place outside the Council’s purview and through diplomatic channels limited to specific stakeholders. Such a meeting could provide an opportunity for Council members and the EU to present their views and exchange ideas on how to best address this issue.
A set of challenges for the Council could emerge should the US decide to initiate the snapback mechanism under the JCPOA. A central issue, in this case, would be whether the US has the legal authority to do so in that it withdrew from the agreement in 2018. Another issue for the Council would be whether to seek a legal opinion on this question from either the Secretariat or the International Court of Justice and what political consequences such an opinion could have for the Council.
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. In light of 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.
The US withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018 has left the Council deeply divided on this issue. Although Iran has committed several breaches of its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA, it has remained formally in the agreement. 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 the country, 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. Some have suggested that by withdrawing from JCPOA, the US voided its ability to trigger the snapback mechanism.
These members have, however, expressed concern over Iran’s latest violations of the agreement and have called on the country to return to full compliance. Given its continued breaches of the JCPOA, Iran is at risk of losing the support of the other parties to the agreement and the wider Council membership.
The ongoing campaign by the US to extend the arms-related restrictions on Iran has further deepened the divisions among permanent members. China and Russia have been vocal in their opposition to the renewal of the arms embargo on Iran and have accused the US of not meeting its obligations under the JCPOA. These two members would most likely veto any attempt by the US to pass a resolution that would extend the arms embargo. France, Germany and the UK, which are all allies of the US, have not made definite pronouncements on this specific issue. While these members share similar concerns with the US over Iran’s destabilising role in the region, they have emphasised the importance of addressing Iran’s nuclear issue by preserving the JCPOA.
The attempt by the US to initiate a snapback mechanism under the JCPOA would likely result in deepening already existing divisions among Council members. It seems certain that some members would question the legal validity of this move by the US.
In addition to non-proliferation issues, the Council has also been drawn into consideration of the regional security situation stemming from the attacks in the Persian Gulf on Saudi oil facilities and oil tankers in 2019 and the 3 January killing of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, by a US strike near the Baghdad airport. The Council has been united in calling for de-escalation and restraint by all parties.
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.|
|10 December 2019S/2019/934||This was the most recent Secretary-General’s report.|
|Security Council Letter|
|4 December 2019S/2019/925||This was the report of the Joint Commission to the Security Council on the status of the Procurement Working Group ’s decisions.|
|Security Council Meeting Record|
|19 December 2019S/PV.8695||The Council held its semi-annual briefing on the implementation of resolution 2231, which endorsed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear programme.|
|Security Council Press Statement|
|2 April 2019SC/13762||Council members reaffirmed their commitment to advance the goals of the Non Proliferation Treaty.|