Expected Council Action
In June, the Security 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 Geraldine Byrne Nason (Ireland). Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo 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
Starting in early April and continuing through May, the remaining parties to the JCPOA (China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, and Iran) convened a series of meetings in Vienna under the chairmanship of the EU to discuss the prospect of a possible US return to the JCPOA. The US delegation was also present in Vienna but did not participate directly in these meetings. The remaining parties to the JCPOA served as intermediaries between Iran and the US, given that Iran refused to engage in direct talks with the US.
Then-US President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the JCPOA in May 2018 and subsequently imposed a series of unilateral sanctions on Iran as part of a broader strategy of maximum pressure. In response, Iran, which has formally remained in the agreement, resumed uranium enrichment beyond JCPOA–mandated limits. Iran has conditioned its return to full compliance with the JCPOA on sanctions relief from the agreement’s remaining parties.
The current US president, Joe Biden, has indicated his intention to re-enter the agreement under the condition that Iran first returns to full compliance. Biden has said that this would be a starting point for further negotiations to address other issues, including Iran’s destabilising activities in the region and its ballistic missile program. Iran has emphasised that it would return to full compliance only after the US does the same. It has ruled out any negotiations over the terms of the JCPOA.
During the initial rounds of talks in Vienna, an agreement was reached to create two working groups, one focused on the lifting of specific US sanctions and the other on steps Iran should take to return to compliance with its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA. A third working group was later created to examine the potential sequencing of corresponding measures.
The talks in Vienna continued even after the 11 April explosion at the Iranian nuclear facility in Natanz. The explosion disrupted the power supply to some of the centrifuges used in the uranium–enrichment process. Iran described the incident as sabotage and blamed Israel, which neither confirmed nor denied its involvement. The US denied involvement and refused to speculate on the causes of the incident. In the following days, Iran released more details indicating that explosives were used to target the centrifuges’ power supply. It named Reza Karimi as the main suspect in the attack and said that he left the country shortly before it occurred.
On 13 April, Iran announced that it would start enriching some of its uranium stock at a 60 percent level, well above the JCPOA-set limit of 3.67 percent. Three parties to the agreement (France, Germany and the UK) issued a joint statement expressing concern over Iran’s plan to increase its uranium enrichment activities, which they called an important step towards the production of a nuclear weapon. They said that Iran’s announcement runs contrary to ongoing diplomatic efforts to revive the JCPOA.
In December 2020, Iran’s parliament passed a law significantly limiting the access of IAEA inspectors to Iran’s nuclear sites starting in February 2021. However, the IAEA and Iran reached a temporary agreement in February allowing the agency to undertake verification and monitoring activities at Iran’s nuclear sites until 21 May that were less limiting than the measures outlined in the December 2020 law. On 24 May, Iran and the IAEA extended this agreement until 24 June.
Key Issues and Options
The main concern for the Council is to promote full implementation of resolution 2231 by the remaining parties to the JCPOA and the wider UN membership.
The long-term survival of the JCPOA remains in question, given the US withdrawal from the agreement in May 2018, its ongoing bilateral sanctions on Iran, and Iran’s continued breaches of its commitments under the agreement. Council members will continue to follow closely the diplomatic efforts in Vienna to revive the JCPOA. Should those efforts result in the stated objective of restoring the agreement, the Council could consider issuing a statement welcoming this development.
Although 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, 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. At the moment, this option seems less likely, given its possible implications for the ongoing diplomatic talks in Vienna.
The October 2020 expiry of arms-related restrictions on Iran 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 challenge in trying to address Iran’s activities in the region without affecting the JCPOA.
For several years, Council dynamics on Iran were characterised by deep divisions between the US and a majority of other members. This was a direct consequence of the Trump administration’s policy towards Iran and, in particular, its attempts to undermine the JCPOA. Last year, the US found itself isolated during several attempts to pursue this policy objective through the Council. Facing the October 2020 expiry of arms-related restrictions on Iran under resolution 2231, the US tabled a draft resolution that would have extended the arms embargo on Iran indefinitely. The draft was not adopted, receiving two votes in favour (Dominican Republic and the US), two against (China and Russia), and 11 abstentions. Soon after, the US notified the Council that it found Iran in noncompliance with the JCPOA and claimed that it had triggered the snapback mechanism under resolution 2231, which would effectively restore all UN sanctions on Iran that were in force before the adoption of resolution 2231. All Council members, excluding the US and the Dominican Republic, expressed their opposition to the US move. They argued that the US did not have the right to invoke the snapback provision under resolution 2231 because of its withdrawal from the JCPOA.
As a result of the change of policy by the Biden administration, Council members are likely to find more common ground on issues related to Iran, primarily the JCPOA. The US interest in restoring the JCPOA means that it no longer finds itself isolated in the Council on this issue.
JCPOA participants France and the UK have emphasised the importance of preserving the JCPOA, especially its nuclear-related provisions. These members, as well as the US, have expressed concerns over the expiry of arms-related restrictions in October 2020 and Iran’s destabilising behaviour in the region. One of the stated objectives of the Biden administration is to address these issues in a follow-up agreement after first restoring the JCPOA. 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.
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.|
|7 December 2020S/2020/1177||This was the report on the implementation of Security Council resolution 2231.|