Expected Council Action
In December, the Council is due to receive the Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of resolution 2231 of 20 July 2015, which endorsed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear programme. The Council also expects reports from the Joint Commission and the Council’s 2231 facilitator, Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason (Ireland). The Joint Commission was established to oversee the implementation of the JCPOA and comprises the current parties to the agreement: China, France, Germany, the UK, Russia, and Iran. Byrne Nason, 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 expected to brief the Council.
Key Recent Developments
In early April, the current parties to the JCPOA convened a series of meetings in Vienna to discuss its possible revival. The US, which was originally a party to the JCPOA, withdrew in May 2018 at the behest of then-US President Donald Trump, who went on to impose unilateral sanctions against Iran. Although Iran formally remained in the JCPOA, it subsequently took several steps that directly contravened its terms, such as resuming uranium enrichment at levels higher than JCPOA-mandated limits.
The US was present in Vienna but did not participate directly in the talks. Six rounds of negotiations took place and, when the sixth round concluded in late June, officials involved in the negotiations believed that a deal was close to being finalised, which would see the US re-join the JCPOA and Iran return to full compliance. On 1 July, for example, a spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry told the media that sizeable progress had been made and said that Russia expected the talks to conclude successfully by 14 July.
The 19 June election of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, an ultraconservative cleric and former judge with strong ties to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appears to have disrupted the negotiations. In mid-July, Iranian negotiators apparently advised European officials that Iran would not return to the negotiating table until Raisi had been inaugurated in early August. In the weeks and months following Raisi’s inauguration, Iran repeatedly refused to resume negotiations despite growing pressure for it to do so. On 4 September, Raisi gave an interview to Iranian state television in which he suggested that Iran would not restart talks while under “pressure”, an apparent reference to US sanctions on Iran.
In addition to refusing to re-join the talks in Vienna, Iran began ramping up its nuclear activities after Raisi was elected. On 6 July, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran had begun producing uranium metal enriched to 20 percent for the first time, thereby contravening the terms of the JCPOA, which prohibits Iran from producing or acquiring uranium metal for 15 years. In late August, Iran reportedly resumed producing component parts of centrifuges, which are used to produce enriched uranium, at an assembly plant in Karaj. Following an initial announcement regarding its intentions on 16 April, Iran also continued to enrich uranium to 60 percent purity, a level just below that required to produce a nuclear weapon and well above the limit of 3.67 percent imposed by the JCPOA. In a 19 August statement, France, Germany, and the UK accused Iran of committing “serious violations of [its] commitments under the JCPOA” and “establishing facts on the ground which make a return to the JCPOA more complicated”.
Iran’s recent nuclear activity has resulted in a significant increase in its nuclear stockpiles. In a 13 September report, the Institute for Science and International Security, a non-profit group that focuses on stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, estimated that Iran now holds enough enriched uranium to produce weapons-grade uranium for “over two” nuclear weapons and may be able to produce enough fuel for a single weapon within a month, should it choose to do so. According to media reports, a 17 November report issued by the IAEA estimated that Iran now holds 17.7 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent purity, an increase of approximately eight kilograms since August.
International monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities has been disrupted in recent months. On 24 June, a February 2021 agreement that allowed the IAEA to continue monitoring Iran’s nuclear activity expired and was not immediately renewed. Despite earlier assurances from Iran, IAEA inspectors were also denied access to the Karaj centrifuge assembly plant in mid-September. In a 23 October interview with NBC News, IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said that the agency’s nuclear monitoring programme in Iran was no longer “intact” and that there was a possibility the international community would be unable “to reconstruct the picture” of Iran’s nuclear activity. On 22 November, Grossi met with Iranian officials, including Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, to push for enhanced monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities by the IAEA. Grossi left Iran the following day without agreeing a deal for better access.
On 2 November, the European External Action Service announced that negotiations to revive the JCPOA will resume on 29 November and that Iran will participate in the talks. Several analysts predict that the next round of negotiations is likely to be difficult. The US has indicated that the talks should resume at the point where they were paused in June, while Raisi’s administration, which is expected to take a harder line than the previous regime, has signalled that it may wish to revisit points that have already been agreed. In late October, Amirabdollahian said that Iran “[does not] want to enter the Vienna negotiations from the deadlock point of the Vienna negotiations”. On 19 November, French Foreign Minister Jean Yves-Le Drian told Le Monde that France wanted to establish whether the talks would resume from the same point and, in an apparent warning to Iran, said that “if this discussion is a sham, then we will have to consider the JCPOA empty”.
Before the recent pause, the primary points of contention in the negotiations were well defined. Iran has refused to decrease its stockpiles of enriched uranium unless US sanctions are removed, while the US has said that it will not lift its sanctions until Iran reduces those stockpiles. The US and Iran also differ regarding which sanctions should be removed.
There have been other areas of disagreement. Iran has demanded a guarantee that any agreement which might be reached in Vienna will not be reversed by a future US administration, and has recently suggested that it may seek sanctions relief that is broader than what it originally received under the JCPOA. The US, on the other hand, has reportedly sought a longer deal that runs beyond the JCPOA’s 2030 expiry date and encompasses a broader range of issues, including Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its support for regional militias.
On 20 October, a drone strike targeted a US military base in southern Syria. According to media reports, several US and Israeli officials, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity, believe that the strike was Iranian retaliation for Israeli airstrikes in Syria. The US has not publicly accused Iran of carrying out the attack, and Iran has not claimed responsibility for it.
On 18 November, the US announced that it had indicted two Iranians for interfering with the 2020 presidential election. The Department of the Treasury also sanctioned six Iranian officials and one Iranian entity for their alleged role in the plan.
Key Issues and Options
The long-term survival of the JCPOA is under threat. Analysts have suggested that the nuclear activities undertaken by Iran since the US withdrawal are likely to make a return to full compliance difficult, particularly given the institutional knowledge that Iran’s nuclear programme has acquired as a result of these activities. Council members will therefore follow negotiations in Vienna closely. If the talks result in a revival of the JCPOA, the Council could consider issuing a statement welcoming this development. Should a new agreement be reached, the Council may wish to adopt a resolution that endorses that agreement.
Given Iran’s non-compliance with the terms of the JCPOA, Council members could initiate the “snapback mechanism” in resolution 2231 if the Vienna talks collapse. This would reinstate the sanctions that were in place before resolution 2231 was adopted.
Council members are generally united in their desire to see the negotiations in Vienna progress and are likely to urge Iran to comply with its obligations under resolution 2231. Some members, including the P3 (France, the UK and the US) and other like-minded states, are expected to call for Iran to resume its cooperation with the IAEA. These members may also choose to criticise Iran for its recent nuclear activities. Conversely, China and Russia are expected to be more supportive of Iran. Both states have backed Iran’s call for the US to provide a guarantee that it will not resile from any agreement reached in Vienna and have also criticised the US for withdrawing from the JCPOA and imposing unilateral sanctions on Iran.
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 2021S/2021/582||This was the report on the implementation of Security Council resolution 2231.|