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 Fergal Mythen (Ireland). The Joint Commission was established to oversee the implementation of the JCPOA and comprises the current parties to the agreement: China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, and Iran. Mythen, 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
Negotiations concerning the possible revival of the JCPOA, which have been held in Vienna and began in April 2021, have stalled in recent months amid the ongoing protests in Iran and the lead-up to the 8 November midterm elections in the US. The US, which was originally a party to the JCPOA, withdrew from the agreement in May 2018 at the behest of then-US President Donald Trump, who went on to impose unilateral sanctions on Iran. Although Iran formally remained in the JCPOA, it has subsequently taken several steps that directly contravene its terms, including enriching uranium to levels higher than JCPOA-mandated limits and removing cameras and monitoring equipment required by the agreement. During his election campaign, current US President Joe Biden promised to re-join the JCPOA if Iran returns to strict compliance with its terms.
The US has been present in Vienna but has not directly participated in the talks, with other parties to the JCPOA instead serving as intermediaries with Iran because of its refusal to attend meetings with the US. The most recent major rounds of negotiations took place in August and September and ended shortly before the wave of protests currently sweeping Iran began.
Several issues have arisen during the course of the talks. 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 do so until Iran reduces its stockpiles. Iran has sought a guarantee that any new agreement will not be reversed by a future US administration and has pushed for the US to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from its list of designated foreign terrorist organisations. Iran and the US have also disagreed over which sanctions should be lifted if the JCPOA is revived.
While it appeared that progress had been made on many of these issues, during the latest rounds of negotiations, an ongoing International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation into traces of enriched uranium discovered by the IAEA in three undeclared sites in Iran in 2019 emerged as a major sticking point. In a 1 September response to a draft agreement circulated by the EU in early August, which an EU official described as the “final” text for reviving the deal, Iran reportedly insisted that the IAEA probe be closed as a precondition for its return to compliance with the JCPOA.
The US and the European parties to the agreement have strongly objected to Iran’s proposal. On 10 September, France, Germany and the UK issued a joint statement which said that Iran had “reopened separate issues that relate to its legally binding international obligations under the [Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons] (NPT) and its NPT safeguards agreement concluded with the [IAEA]” and that “this latest demand raises serious doubts as to Iran’s intentions and commitment to a successful outcome on the JCPOA”. Similarly, on 12 September, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters that Iran’s response to the proposal put forward by the EU “is clearly a step backward and makes prospects for an agreement in the near-term … unlikely”.
In late September, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi tweeted that “dialogue has restarted with Iran on clarification of outstanding safeguards issues”. The announcement followed meetings between Grossi and Mohammad Eslami, the head of Iran’s nuclear agency, that took place in Vienna on the sidelines of the IAEA General Conference. The talks between the IAEA and Iran did not appear to resolve the outstanding issues and, on 17 November, the IAEA Board of Governors adopted a resolution rebuking Iran and directing it to comply with the IAEA’s investigation. China and Russia both voted against the resolution.
In response to the IAEA resolution, Iran announced on 22 November that it had started enriching uranium to 60 percent purity at its Fordow nuclear facility, a level just below that required to produce a nuclear weapon and well above the 3.67 percent limit imposed by the JCPOA. Prior to this announcement, Iran had enriched 62.3 kilograms of uranium to 60 percent purity at its main nuclear facility in Natanz, according to an IAEA report dated 10 November. A 16 November analysis of the IAEA report published by the Institute for Science and International Security—a non-governmental institution led by a former IAEA nuclear inspector—said that Iran “has more than enough 60 percent enriched uranium” to “directly fashion a nuclear explosive”.
These developments have taken place against a backdrop of increasingly violent anti-government protests in Iran. The protests, which were sparked by the 16 September death of Mahsa Amini after falling into a coma while in police custody, have been described by several analysts as the most serious challenge to the Iranian government in years. As at 22 November, at least 342 people, including more than 40 children, had been killed and more than 15,000 arrested during the demonstrations. On 2 November, Albania and the US convened an Arria-formula meeting to discuss the protests. (For more, see our What’s in Blue story of 1 November.) Both the EU and the US have imposed additional sanctions on Iranian officials in response to the protests.
Iran has also carried out a series of attacks against Kurdish-Iranian opposition groups in north-eastern Iraq since late September. Iran accuses these organisations of fomenting the protests—allegations that some of these groups have denied. On 22 November, Council members discussed the recent Iranian strikes in Iraq under “any other business”. (For more, see our What’s in Blue story of 22 November.) It seems that the US circulated a draft press statement which condemned Iran’s attacks in the strongest terms and reiterated the Council’s support for the stability, sovereignty and security of Iraq. Russia apparently opposed including any reference to Iran in the text. Consensus could not be achieved, and the press statement was not issued. Russia subsequently proposed a presidential statement on the attacks in Iraq. The proposed text has apparently gone through several iterations, none of which referenced Iran. At the time of writing, there was no agreement on the text.
In mid-October, France, Germany, the UK, and the US wrote a series of letters to the Council accusing Iran of transferring unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Russia and arguing that the transfers constitute violations of resolution 2231. These member states also alleged that Russia has been using Iranian UAVs to carry out attacks in Ukraine. The letters expressed support for an investigation into the allegations by the UN Secretariat. Russia requested a meeting in response to these letters, citing alleged “risks to the integrity of the UN Charter, to the Organisation and the ability of the Security Council to perform its main function posed by the attempts of certain member states to influence the UN Secretariat in the discharge of its responsibilities in violation of article 100 of the UN Charter”. The meeting was held on 26 October. (For more, see our What’s in Blue story of 26 October.)
Human Rights-Related Developments
On 15 November, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a statement calling for the immediate release of thousands being held in Iran for their involvement in peaceful demonstrations following the death of Mahsa Amini. The statement emphasised OHCHR’s deep concern regarding the 1,000 indictments issued in Tehran alone. A spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged the authorities to immediately release the detainees and drop all charges, underscoring that under international law, countries which have not abolished the death penalty can only impose it for the “most serious crimes”, which are interpreted as “crimes of extreme gravity, involving intentional killing”.
On 16 November, the Third Committee of the General Assembly approved a draft resolution on the human rights situation in Iran. Among Council members, China, India, and Russia voted against approving the draft, while Brazil, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) abstained. If adopted by the General Assembly, the resolution will express concern at the alarmingly high frequency of the imposition of the death penalty in Iran and urge Iran to cease the use of excessive force against peaceful protesters.
On 24 November, the Human Rights Council (HRC) held a special session “to address the deteriorating human rights situation” in Iran. The special session was convened following a request from Germany and Iceland with the support of several other member states, including Albania, France, Japan, Malta, Mexico, the UK, and the US. The HRC adopted a resolution which established a mechanism to promote accountability in Iran, among other matters. Among Council members, China and Russia voted against the resolution, while Brazil, India, and the UAE abstained. France, Gabon, Mexico, the UK, and the US voted in favour.
Key Issues and Options
The prospects for the revival of the JCPOA appear dim, at least in the near term. Analysts have suggested that the steps undertaken by Iran since the US’ withdrawal from the agreement, including its uranium enrichment activities, 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 acquired by Iran’s nuclear programme. The Iranian government’s violent repression of anti-government protests and apparent support for the Russian war effort in Ukraine have also made reviving the JCPOA politically difficult for the Biden administration.
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. If completed, this process would reinstate the UN sanctions that were in place before the JCPOA was agreed upon.
Council members are generally united in their desire to see the negotiations in Vienna progress and have expressed support for the possible revival of the JCPOA. Some members, including the P3 (France, the UK and the US) and other like-minded states, remain concerned about Iran’s activities that contravene the JCPOA and its lack of cooperation with the IAEA. Some may criticise Iran for raising demands that are beyond the scope of the JCPOA during the Vienna talks and blame Iran for the failure to reach an agreement. The US and European members might refer to the allegations that Iran has supplied UAVs to Russia for use in Ukraine and reiterate support for an investigation into whether the transfers constitute a violation of resolution 2231.
China and Russia are more supportive of Iran. Both states have previously criticised the US for withdrawing from the JCPOA and imposing unilateral sanctions on the Iranian regime. China and Russia may raise objections to the resolution adopted by the IAEA Board of Governors on 17 November.
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.
|23 June 2022S/2022/490
|This was a report on the implementation of resolution 2231.