Consultations on Iran
On Monday morning (14 March), at the request of the US, Security Council members are expected to meet in consultations to discuss Iran’s recent ballistic missile launches. It seems that a briefing by the Department of Political Affairs has been requested, but at press time it had not been confirmed whether the briefer would be Under-Secretary-General Jeffrey Feltman or someone else. It will be the first formal discussion among Council members concerning Iran since the implementation day on 16 January of the Joint Comprehensive Programme of Action (JCPOA) regarding Iran’s nuclear programme, when the new provisions under resolution 2231 came into effect and the 1737 Iran Sanctions Committee and previous resolutions on Iran were terminated.
As widely reported by the media, Iran conducted several medium-range ballistic missile tests from different locations across the country on 8 March and fired another two missiles on 9 March. The tests were conducted by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran (IRGC) “to demonstrate Iran’s deterrent power and the Islamic republic’s ability to confront any threat against the revolution, the state and sovereignty of the country” according to an official statement. An IRGC commander was also quoted as saying that the missiles were designed to hit Israel, “our enemy the Zionist regime”, from a safe distance, and were stamped with the words “Israel should be wiped from the pages of history” in Hebrew.
While the JCPOA itself does not impose any restrictions on Iran relating to ballistic missiles, resolution 2231 contains a provision calling on Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.” However, following the missile launches, Iran said that the launches did not violate either the JCPOA or resolution 2231 since the missiles were conventional defensive instruments that were designed merely for legitimate defense purposes. Also, an IRGC official said the Hebrew markings on the missiles had not been approved by any official high-level decision.
There seems to be no disagreement that the missile launches do not violate the JCPOA, but views among Council members are likely to differ as to whether they are permissible under resolution 2231. The language in the resolution, which reflected the need to overcome Iranian resistance to any mention of its ballistic missile activities, is intentionally ambiguous. In particular, the use of the term “calls on Iran not to undertake” instead of “decides that Iran shall not undertake,” which was the phrase in the sanctions provisions that have now been terminated, means that the stipulation could fall short of a legal obligation. Furthermore, although not new to resolution 2231 (resolution 1929 contained similar wording), the question of whether a missile is designed to deliver a nuclear weapon is also open to interpretation, as it raises the question of whether a missile must be explicitly designed to deliver a nuclear weapon to fall within the terms of the resolution.
In an 11 March statement, US Ambassador Samantha Power said that the US was “deeply concerned” about Iran’s missile launches and called them provocative and destabilizing. She also condemned the threats against Israel, but did not explicitly condemn the launches as a violation of resolution 2231. Instead, she said that the US would continue to insist on its “full implementation” and would also consider an “appropriate national response.” A US official was earlier quoted as saying that the launches were “inconsistent” with resolution 2231.
The US position is probably shared by a number of other Council members, although it appears they have yet to make any public statements. On the other hand, China, Russia, Venezuela and perhaps some other Council members, are more likely to be sympathetic to Iran’s position. The discussions on Monday are therefore expected to reflect traditional differences among Council members. The main purpose of the US in calling for the meeting on the missile launches, however, seems to be to send a warning to Iran that its actions are unacceptable and risk undermining the JCPOA. The meeting is probably also important for US domestic reasons, to demonstrate that the Obama administration is taking the situation seriously, amidst calls by members of the US Congress for new unilateral sanctions against Iran.
In other developments, the IAEA on 24 February submitted a report to its Board of Governors and in parallel to the Security Council (GOV/2016/9) confirming that Iran has continued to comply with its obligations under the JCPOA. On 1 March, the Council’s facilitator of the implementation of resolution 2231, Ambassador Román Oyarzun, held an open briefing for member states to explain the new obligations under the resolution.
Looking ahead, the Secretary-General’s first report to the Council on the implementation of resolution 2231 is due in July. In its 16 January presidential note outlining the “practical arrangements and procedures” for carrying out the tasks relating to the resolution (S/2016/44), the Council requested the Secretary-General to report every six months on implementation and noted that the Council would meet informally, normally at the expert level, to review the findings and recommendations contained in the report. It further asked the member of the Council selected as facilitator to brief it on the implementation of the resolution every six months, in parallel with the Secretary-General’s report. In addition, resolution 2231 requested the Secretary-General, in order to support JCPOA implementation, to take the necessary administrative measures to facilitate communications with member states and between the Council and the Joint Commission established by the parties to the JCPOA to monitor its implementation. At the time of writing, the General Assembly’s Fifth Committee was expected to approve a request from the Secretary-General for the creation of 11 new positions in the Secretariat to carry out the work related to resolution 2231.