Expected Council Action
In June, the Council is due 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 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.
Key Recent Developments
Negotiations concerning the possible return of the US to the JCPOA, which have been taking place in Vienna and began in April 2021, have stalled in recent months. The US, which was originally a party to the JCPOA, withdrew in May 2018 at the behest of then-US President Donald Trump. Following its withdrawal, the US imposed unilateral sanctions on Iran as part of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. Although Iran formally remained in the JCPOA, it subsequently took several steps that directly contravened its terms, such as enriching uranium to levels higher than the JCPOA-mandated limits. During his presidential campaign, US President Joe Biden promised to rejoin the JCPOA if Iran returns to strict compliance with its terms.
The US has been present in Vienna but has not participated directly in the talks, with other parties to the JCPOA instead serving as intermediaries with Iran because of Iran’s refusal to attend meetings with the US. Six rounds of negotiations were held between April and June 2021, before a five-month hiatus that appears to have been caused by the 19 June 2021 election of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, an ultraconservative cleric and former judge with strong ties to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The seventh round of talks began on 29 November 2021. According to media reports, differences between the parties emerged quickly, with Iran seeking significant changes to a draft agreement that had been nearly complete before negotiations were paused in June. Progress was ultimately made, however, and the eighth round of negotiations commenced on 27 December 2021. Although discussions have been on hold for approximately ten weeks, the text of an agreement is reportedly close to being finalised by the parties.
The major outstanding issue relates to the designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organisation (FTO) by the US. The IRGC is a military unit that operates under the direct control of Khamenei independently from the rest of Iran’s armed forces. It has been linked with several militias that are active throughout the region and was designated as an FTO in 2019 as part of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. Iran has demanded that the US remove this designation during the negotiations. The US, on the other hand, has said that it will remove the designation only if the IRGC limits its regional activities and refrains from targeting US nationals. There is also strong bipartisan opposition to taking the IRGC off the FTO list among US politicians. On 4 May, the US Senate passed a non-binding motion which said that the FTO designation of the IRGC should not be removed, among other matters. The motion, which was voted for by 47 Republicans and 15 Democrats, also indicated that any new nuclear agreement with Iran should address Iran’s support for the activities of regional militias.
EU Deputy Secretary-General Enrique Mora, the official coordinating the talks in Vienna on behalf of the EU, travelled to Tehran last week in an effort to restart the talks, which have been on hold since 11 March, largely because of this issue. Mora reportedly told Iranian officials that the US may consider removing the IRGC’s FTO designation once a nuclear agreement has been finalised, while Iran said that it was willing to resume discussing other matters concerning the agreement. During a news conference on the sidelines of a recent meeting of G7 foreign ministers, Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said that Mora’s trip to Tehran had “gone better than expected” and that the talks had “reopened”.
However, according to media reports published on 24 May, Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that he had finalised his decision to keep the IRGC on the US’ FTO list during a call on 24 April. On 25 May, the US sanctioned “an international oil smuggling and money laundering network” led by an IRGC official and a former IRGC official. A US press statement said that this network “is backed by senior levels of the Russian Federation government and state-run economic enterprises” and has “facilitated the sale of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of oil for the IRGC and Hezbollah”.
There have been other areas of disagreement during the course of the negotiations. At different times in the discussion, 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 sanctions until Iran reduces those stockpiles. The US and Iran have also disagreed about which sanctions should be removed, and Iran has demanded a guarantee that any new agreement will not be reversed by a future US administration. The US 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 support for regional militias. Iran has also called for an agreement that the IAEA will end its ongoing investigation into uranium traces found at undeclared facilities to be incorporated into the deal.
According to media outlets claiming to have knowledge of a draft of the text, the new agreement begins with an initial phase where Iran suspends uranium enrichment above five percent, and a series of other measures are implemented, including the release of western nationals held in Iran and the unfreezing of $7 billion of Iranian assets held in Republic of Korea (ROK) banks because of US sanctions. Under the terms of this draft agreement, sanctions will begin to be eased at different intervals once this phase is complete.
Iran’s recent nuclear activity has resulted in a significant increase in its nuclear stockpiles. In a 10 May report to the European Parliament, Rafael Mariano Grossi, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said that Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium is estimated to be 42 kilograms, an increase of approximately 25 kilograms since November 2021. Grossi described this development as “serious cause for concern” and also noted that no other non-nuclear weapon party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) enriches uranium to this level.
In testimony before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 25 May, US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley said that he was “not particularly optimistic” that the negotiations in Vienna will reach a successful conclusion.
Human Rights-Related Developments
On 17 March, during its 49th session, the Human Rights Council (HRC) held an interactive dialogue with the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, and considered his report (A/HRC/49/75). On 1 April, the HRC adopted a resolution extending the mandate of the special rapporteur by a vote of 19 in favour; 12 against, including China, India and Russia; and 16 abstentions, including Brazil, Gabon and the UAE (A/HRC/49/L.7). The resolution called on the government to grant the special rapporteur access to the country.
The special rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights, Alena Douhan, visited Iran from 7 to 18 May. In an 18 May statement, Douhan said that existing unilateral sanctions against Iran, together with secondary sanctions against third parties, over-compliance and zero-risking policies by businesses and financial institutions, exacerbate existing humanitarian and economic challenges and negatively affect the lives of the Iranian people, particularly the most vulnerable. On 17 May, the spokesperson for the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed alarm over the imminent execution in Iran of the Swedish-Iranian doctor and academic Ahmedreza Djalali and urgently called on the Iranian authorities to halt the execution and revoke his death sentence. Djalali was arrested in April 2016 while on a visit to Iran to attend academic workshops on disaster medicine and was charged with spying for Israel.
Key Issues and Options
The long-term survival of the JCPOA is in jeopardy. Analysts have suggested that the nuclear activities undertaken by Iran since the US withdrawal are likely to make a return to the original terms of the agreement and full compliance with those terms difficult, particularly given the institutional knowledge that Iran’s nuclear programme has acquired as a result of these activities. US officials have, for example, reportedly concluded that Iran’s nuclear programme has advanced too far to recreate the breakout period of approximately 12 months that is set out in the JCPOA.
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. If a new agreement is 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 and Wider Dynamics
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 criticised the US for withdrawing from the JCPOA and imposing unilateral sanctions on Iran. China and Russia have also implemented measures that appear to demonstrate a willingness to support Iran. Following a 19 January meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Raisi, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said that the two presidents had “agreed on the framework of a long-term agreement”. The agreement is reportedly modelled on an economic and security cooperation agreement Iran negotiated with China in 2021. In the days following this meeting, China and Russia also held naval drills with Iran in the north Indian Ocean.
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.|
|8 December 2021S/2021/995||This was a report on the implementation of Security Council resolution 2231.|