What's In Blue

Posted Fri 14 Aug 2020

Vote on the Iran Arms Embargo Resolution

This afternoon (14 August) the Security Council is expected to announce the results of a vote on a draft resolution on the Iran arms embargo. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Council members currently submit their votes to the Security Council Affairs Division through a written adoption procedure. The draft resolution was put in blue on 12 August and the voting procedure that began yesterday afternoon (13 August) was set to close today.

An earlier version of the draft, which was initially introduced on 22 June, authorised member states to conduct vessel inspections and weapons seizures and to include designations for a travel ban and assets freeze. The draft also called for a sanctions committee to be formed to monitor the implementation of the resolution and a panel of experts to support the committee’s work. It further contained language critical of Iranian behaviour in the region.

Finding little support from members for this draft, the US circulated a shorter draft resolution of only four paragraphs on the evening of 11 August, which would not add new measures but would only extend the existing arms-related restrictions set to expire in October under resolution 2231 “until the Security Council decides otherwise”.  It does not call for the establishment of a sanctions committee or a panel of experts, nor does it include language critical of Iran.

The US is seeking to address one of its more immediate concerns regarding resolution 2231, which endorsed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear programme. The US has argued that Iran poses a threat to peace and security in the region and continues to supply weapons to terrorist groups and proxies in violation of resolution 2231. Therefore, it has stressed the importance of extending the arms embargo beyond October. Over the past several months, the US has engaged in a public campaign to garner international support for its position.

Before the adoption of resolution 2231, Iran was subject to a wide range of nuclear-related sanctions imposed by the Council. Resolution 2231 terminated the previously imposed nuclear-related sanctions and put in place specific restrictions on:

  • arms-related transfers to and from Iran, set to expire in 2020;
  • ballistic missile-related transfers and activities and assets freeze, set to expire in 2023; and
  • nuclear-related transfers and activities, set to expire in 2025.

Under resolution 2231, the expiry of these restrictions is contingent on Iran’s compliance with its commitments under the JCPOA.

In its current form, the draft resolution in blue appears unlikely to be adopted, given that permanent members China and Russia have stated their opposition to extending the arms embargo. Several other Council members are expected to abstain. This could lead to a scenario where the draft fails to receive nine votes in favour, thereby also eliminating the need for China and Russia to use their veto to block the draft resolution.

The US has been isolated at the Council on this issue since it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018. Most other Council members agree on the importance of preserving the JCPOA, and several members have been working to salvage it, although a number of them have concerns about the possible regional security and stability implications of the October expiry of arms-related restrictions on Iran.

Taking into consideration the deep divisions in the Council, it appears very difficult for Council members to reach a compromise on the arms embargo while also preserving the JCPOA. China and Russia appear firm in their opposition to changes to the main provisions of resolution 2231, and have communicated formally, via letters to the Security Council, their disapproval of the US initiative.  Additionally, Iran has rejected efforts to extend the arms embargo and has said that, in that case, it would abandon the agreement altogether.

Looking ahead, the Council could face a major crisis should the US attempt to trigger the snapback mechanism envisaged in resolution 2231. The resolution stipulates that any concerned party to the JCPOA can notify the Council about an issue that it considers a significant violation of the agreement. The sanctions in place before the adoption of resolution 2231 would then resume 30 days after the notification unless the Council adopts a resolution that continues the lifting of the sanctions. The US indicated that it would renew the arms embargo by triggering the snapback mechanism if the Council fails to adopt a resolution to that end.

China and Russia have challenged the legality of the US assertion that it still has a right to trigger the snapback mechanism, given that it withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018. The US has argued that it still retains this right given that resolution 2231 lists it as a party to the JCPOA. In a 19 June joint statement, France, Germany, and the UK stated that: “any unilateral attempt to trigger UN sanctions snapback would have serious adverse consequences in the UNSC [UN Security Council]. We would not support such a decision which would be incompatible with our current efforts to preserve the JCPOA”.

Today’s vote takes place amidst ongoing tensions between the US and Iran, including media reports that the US recently seized Iranian oil from four tankers en route to Venezuela that the US claims were being transported in violation of sanctions.