Expected Council Action
In July, the Council is expected to convene a briefing on the Secretary-General’s biannual 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 will also receive reports from the Joint Commission and the Council’s 2231 facilitator, Ambassador Vanessa Frazier (Malta). 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. Frazier, 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
Efforts to revive the JCPOA remain stalled following a breakdown in negotiations last year and subsequent political developments that led to a further deterioration in relations between the parties. In May 2018, then-US President Donald Trump announced that the US, which was originally a signatory of the JCPOA, was withdrawing from the agreement, and 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. In April 2021, following the election of current US President Joseph Biden, the US, Iran, and other parties to the JCPOA began talks in Vienna to revive the agreement.
Those discussions progressed until August 2022, when the EU circulated what it described as a “final” draft agreement. Iran reportedly insisted as a condition for accepting the deal that the IAEA close its investigation into traces of enriched uranium it discovered at three undeclared sites in Iran in 2019. The US and European parties to the JCPOA objected to this demand, which they viewed as a separate issue related to Iran’s obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). On 17 November 2022, the IAEA Board of Governors adopted a resolution rebuking Iran and directing it to comply with the IAEA’s investigation. In response, Iran announced on 22 November 2022 that it had started enriching uranium to 60 percent purity at its Fordow nuclear facility, a level approaching that required to produce a nuclear weapon and well above the 3.67 percent limit imposed by the JCPOA.
In parallel to these developments, other events further strained diplomatic relations between the parties and entrenched the impasse in JCPOA negotiations. In September 2022, anti-government protests broke out in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody, prompting a forceful response from Iranian security services that led to hundreds of deaths and thousands of arrests. Starting in late September 2022, Iran carried out several attacks against Kurdish-Iranian opposition groups in northeastern Iraq, which Iran accused of fomenting the protests. In October 2022, France, Germany, the UK, and the US accused Iran of transferring unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Russia—allegedly used to carry out attacks in Ukraine—in a purported violation of resolution 2231. Since these incidents, the US has maintained that it still seeks a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program but that talks to revive the JCPOA are currently not a priority.
With negotiations stalled, Iran has increased its production of highly enriched uranium. In its February quarterly report, the IAEA said that Iran’s stockpile of 60-percent enriched uranium had grown by 25.2 kilograms to 87.5 kilograms over the previous three months. Notably, the report also said that the agency had detected traces of uranium enriched to 83.7 percent—just below the roughly 90-percent level considered weapons-grade—at Iran’s Fordow facility. At a US congressional hearing on 28 February, a senior defence official in the Biden administration said the US government estimated that Iran’s “breakout capacity”—the amount of time it would take to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon—was about 12 days.
Iran claimed the enrichment to 83.7 percent was accidental and due to “unintended fluctuations” in enrichment levels. On 4 March, the IAEA and the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran released a joint statement under which Iran agreed to allow the IAEA to “implement further appropriate verification and monitoring activities”, including the installation of surveillance cameras and enrichment monitoring devices at certain nuclear facilities.
According to the IAEA’s most recent report, dated 31 May, Iran’s stockpile of 60-percent enriched uranium has further increased to 114 kilograms over the past three months. The report said that the agency is no longer actively investigating the 83.7 percent enrichment, however, after Iran “provided information that is not inconsistent with its explanation for the origin” of these particles. Similarly, the report said that the agency had no further questions regarding the detection of depleted uranium at Iran’s Marivan facility—one of the three it began investigating in 2019—after Iran provided the agency with a “possible explanation” for its presence. Regarding the agreement on new verification and monitoring measures announced in March, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said in his introductory statement at the IAEA Board of Governors’ meeting on 5 June that only a “fraction” of the envisioned measures had been implemented.
While JCPOA negotiations remain dormant, media reported in mid-June that Iran and the US were engaged in indirect talks in Oman regarding a more limited “informal agreement” aimed at easing diplomatic tensions. Under such a deal, the US might allow Iran to access some frozen assets abroad in exchange for a commitment by Iran to halt production of 60-percent enriched uranium and to cease attacks on American troops in Iraq and Syria through its proxies in the region. The deal could also involve the release of American citizens detained in Iran.
Key Issues and Options
With the prospects for a revival of the JCPOA remaining dim, at least in the near term, the key issue for the Security Council is how to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. 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 and the IAEA’s diminished monitoring capabilities, which prevent it from establishing a new baseline against which to measure compliance with a future agreement. 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 they decide the agreement is no longer viable. This process—which is not subject to the veto—would reinstate the UN sanctions that were in place before the JCPOA was agreed upon. Some analysts have suggested that the P3 (France, the UK, and the US) may initiate this option before the restrictions imposed by resolution 2231 on Iran’s ballistic program expire in October 2023. It does not appear that such a measure is imminent, however, as the indirect bilateral talks between Iran and the US continue and the P3 maintain that their “red line” for initiating the snapback remains the detection of weapons-grade uranium in Iran.
Council members are generally united in their support for the JCPOA, although a revival of the deal is unlikely given current political dynamics.
Some members, including the P3 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 reiterate the allegations that Iran has supplied UAVs to Russia for use in Ukraine——as they did during the Council’s most recent briefing on Ukraine held on 23 June—and express concern at what they view as Iran’s destabilising behaviour in the region, including through its proxies in Iraq and Syria.
China and Russia are more supportive of Iran. Both states have previously blamed the US for the collapse of the JCPOA, criticising it for withdrawing from the deal and imposing unilateral sanctions on the Iranian regime. In February, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi undertook a three-day visit to China, during which the countries issued a joint statement calling for the lifting of sanctions as an integral step towards reviving the JCPOA.
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.|
|12 DECEMBER 2022S/2022/912||This was the biannual report on the implementation of resolution 2231.|