December 2020 Monthly Forecast

Posted 30 November 2020
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Expected Council Action  

In December, 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 Philippe Kridelka (Belgium). Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo, Kridelka, 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 (VTC).  

Key Recent Developments  

Since the Council’s last meeting on the implementation of resolution 2231 in June, the tensions between the US and Iran have continued. Following its formal withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018, the US has imposed a wide range of unilateral sanctions on Iran. It argues that Iran poses a threat to peace and security in the region and continues to supply weapons to terrorist groups and proxies in violation of resolution 2231.  

Among other things, the resolution imposed restrictions on arms-related transfers to and from Iran, with an October 2020 expiry date that was contingent on Iran’s compliance with its commitments under the JCPOA. The US stated its intention not to allow Iran to acquire conventional weapons after the expiry of the ban and emphasised that it would work with other Council members to extend the prohibition. 

In recent months, the US intensified a public campaign to garner international support for extending the arms embargo on Iran. On 14 August, the US tabled a draft resolution that would have extended indefinitely the existing arms-related restrictions under resolution 2231. After receiving two votes in favour (Dominican Republic and the US), two against (China and Russia), and 11 abstentions, the draft resolution was not adopted. On 20 August, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hand-delivered identical letters to UN Secretary-General António Guterres and the president of the Security Council, Ambassador Dian Triansyah Djani (Indonesia), notifying the Council that the US finds Iran in non-compliance with the JCPOA, and claiming that it had, accordingly, triggered the snapback mechanism under resolution 2231. 

Resolution 2231 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 its adoption would then resume 30 days after the notification unless the Council adopted a resolution that continued the lifting of the sanctions. 

Following the US notification, 13 Council members (excluding the US and the Dominican Republic) sent letters to the president of the Council opposing the US move and maintaining that the US did not have the right to invoke the snapback provision under resolution 2231 because of its withdrawal from the JCPOA. The US based its claim on the plain reading of the text of resolution 2231, which lists the US as a participant state to the JCPOA, and argued that it had the right to initiate the procedure irrespective of its current position on the JCPOA, which it considers a non-binding political arrangement related to, but distinct from, resolution 2231. 

During the 25 August open VTC meeting on “the Situation in the Middle East including the Palestinian Question”, Russia asked the Council president (Indonesia) how the presidency would proceed with the US decision to trigger the snapback provision under resolution 2231. Indonesian Ambassador Djani responded that given the lack of consensus among Council members, the presidency could not take further action on this issue. Niger, president of the Council in September, also did not act on this matter, citing a lack of consensus.     

On 19 September, the Secretary-General sent a letter to the president of the Security Council stating that the Council had taken no action to trigger the snapback mechanism after the receipt of the US notification. He indicated that in such circumstances there was uncertainty as to whether or not the snapback mechanism was triggered, but that the Secretariat stood ready to provide support for the Council at its direction. The Secretary-General has taken no position on the validity of the US notification. On 20 September, Pompeo said that all UN sanctions had been reimposed on Iran and that countries that did not respect the sanctions would face consequences.  

In November, the IAEA reported a continued increase in Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium, far exceeding the limit set by the JCPOA. Also, Iran has continued to enrich uranium to a purity of 4.5 percent, exceeding the JCPOA’s limit of 3.67 percent. According to some media reports, US President Donald Trump discussed with his senior advisors possible options for a military strike against an Iranian nuclear site, presumably Natanz. The White House did not comment on these reports. Meanwhile, Iran has warned that any attacks against the country would face a crushing response.     

The newly elected US president, Joe Biden, was a member of the US administration that negotiated the JCPOA in 2015. During his campaign, he stated his intention to reenter the agreement if Iran returns to full compliance, saying that he would use this as a starting point for further negotiations. Iran has been explicit in saying that it would return to full compliance only if the US does the same. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has also emphasised that Iran would not renegotiate the terms of the JCPOA. 

Human Rights-Related Developments  

Addressing the 75th session of the General Assembly, Javaid Rehman, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, presented his annual report (A/75/213) and expressed deep concern, saying that the human rights situation in Iran is characterised by “systematic violations of human rights and continued impunity”. The report emphasised that the violence by security forces during protests in November 2019 and January 2020 was the “worst incident of State violence in Iran in decades”. In his statement, Rehman said that the Government of Iran and the judiciary appeared to be implementing death sentences against protesters “in order to prevent peaceful dissent and limit civic space”. 

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. This has become more challenging since the US claimed to have triggered the snapback mechanism under this resolution, a move that 13 Council members consider illegitimate. 

While members indicated their positions on this matter via letters to the Council, there has been no dedicated discussion on the issue in the Council. Therefore, an option for the Council would be to hold a closed meeting to facilitate a further exchange of views   

While it is still formally in the JCPOA, Iran has continued to breach its nuclear-related commitments under the agreement. Should the remaining parties to the agreement fail to resolve Iran’s noncompliance issues, they would have the option of notifying the Council formally, which would initiate the snapback mechanism, effectively reinstating the sanctions that were in place before the adoption of resolution 2231. 

The expiry of arms-related restrictions on Iran in October poses a related issue for the Council, given the deep divisions among permanent members over how to address this. Some Council members, including JCPOA participant states, have concerns about Iran’s destabilising behaviour in the region and its support for proxy groups. However, the Council would face a difficult task in addressing this issue without affecting the JCPOA. 

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 real 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.   

Council Dynamics 

The US withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018 has left the Council deeply divided on Iran.  Although it has committed several breaches of its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA, Iran formally remains 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 kept up a campaign of maximum pressure 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.   

A recent attempt by the US to extend arms-related restrictions on Iran and subsequently trigger a snapback mechanism faced overwhelming opposition in the Council. An additional challenge the Council faces in the implementation of resolution 2231 is the US position that this resolution is now irrelevant, the US having triggered the snapback mechanism. The US considers that Iran is thus now subject to the UN sanctions that were in place before the adoption of resolution 2231. All other Council members excluding the Dominican Republic view the US move as illegitimate and have said that they intend to continue to implement the resolution.   

The European members and JCPOA participantsFrance, Germany, and the UKhave expressed concerns over the expiry of arms-related restrictions in October and Iran’s destabilising behaviour in the region. They have emphasised the importance of preserving the JCPOA, however, especially its nuclear-related provisions. Iran has signalled that any changes to resolution 2231, including the extension of arms-related restrictions, would force it to withdraw from the agreement. Russia and China are adamant about implementing all aspects of resolution 2231, including its sunset clauses.  The Council dynamics vis-à-vis the JCPOA and resolution 2231 are likely to change next year under the new US administration.  

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Security Council Resolution
20 July 2015S/RES/2231 This was a resolution that endorsed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran.
Secretary-General’s Report
11 June 2020S/2020/531 This was a report on the implementation of resolution 2231.
Security Council Letters
21 September 2020S/2020/927 This was a letter from the US, stating that as of 20 September, all restrictive measures prior to the adoption of resolution 2231 were reinstated on Iran as a result of the US notification to the Security Council of Iran’s significant non-compliance with the JCPOA.
19 September 2020S/2020/921 This was a letter from the Secretary-General, ensuring the Secretariat’s support for the Security Council pending its clarification on whether or not the terminations in paragraph 7 (a) of resolution 2231 continue in effect.
4 September 2020S/2020/1003 This was a letter from the Director General of the IAEA addressed to the president of the Security Council.
21 August 2020S/2020/822 This was a letter from the US, providing a legal argument for its right to initiate a snapback mechanism under resolution 2231.
20 August 2020S/2020/815 This was a letter from to both Secretary-General and the Council president from the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, notifying the Council that Iran is non-compliant with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
15 August 2020S/2020/805 This letter concluded the written voting procedure on the US draft resolution (S/2020/797) that would extend the existing arms-related restrictions set to expire in October under resolution 2231 “until the Security Council decides otherwise”.
2 July 2020S/2020/644 This letter contained the written record of the VTC meeting on implementation of resolution 2231.
Security Council Press Statements
2 April 2019SC/13762 Council members reaffirmed their commitment to advance the goals of the Non Proliferation Treaty.
17 August 2020S/2020/797 This was a US draft resolution that would extend the existing arms-related restrictions set to expire in October under resolution 2231 “until the Security Council decides otherwise”. The draft failed to obtain the required number of votes to be adopted.
15 April 2020S/2020/307 This was the IAEA report on verification and monitoring in Iran in light of resolution 2231.