What's In Blue

Posted Wed 5 Jul 2023

Iran: Non-proliferation Briefing

Tomorrow morning (6 July), the Security Council will convene for its biannual briefing on the implementation of resolution 2231 of 20 July 2015, which endorsed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear programme (JCPOA). Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo is expected to brief on the Secretary-General’s latest report on the implementation of resolution 2231, dated 23 June. The Security Council’s facilitator for the implementation of resolution 2231, Ambassador Vanessa Frazier (Malta), will report on the Council’s work regarding resolution 2231. The head of the EU delegation to the UN, Ambassador Olof Skoog, is expected to brief on the work of the JCPOA’s Joint Commission. The commission comprises the current parties to the JCPOA—China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, and the UK—and the EU serves as its coordinator. The US was originally a party to the JCPOA but withdrew in May 2018.

DiCarlo is likely to provide an overview of the key points of the Secretary-General’s latest report, which outlines relevant developments since December 2022. The report notes that the negotiations to revive the JCPOA remain stalled, “curtailing the prospects for a return to full implementation of the Plan”. It urges all parties to “demonstrate a greater sense of urgency, to renew dialogue and engagement and to strive to reach an agreement on outstanding issues as soon as possible”. In this regard, the report calls on the US to lift or waive its sanctions as outlined in the JCPOA and on Iran to refrain from taking further steps away from full implementation of the agreement.

Negotiations concerning a revival of the JCPOA—which began in Vienna in April 2021 following the election of US President Joe Biden—reached an impasse in September 2022. During negotiations that month, the EU circulated what it described as a “final” draft agreement. Iran reportedly insisted as a condition for accepting the agreement that the International Atomic Energy Agency (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 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (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 have further strained diplomatic relations between the parties and entrenched the impasse in JCPOA negotiations. These include Iran’s response to anti-government protests that broke out in the country in September 2022, and its alleged transfer of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Russia—purportedly used to carry out attacks in Ukraine—which the US and the European parties to the JCPOA have claimed constitutes a violation of resolution 2231. Since these incidents, the US has maintained that it still seeks a diplomatic solution to the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme but that reviving the JCPOA is currently not a priority. According to media reports, however, the US has recently held indirect bilateral talks with Iranian officials in Oman with the aim of reaching a more limited “informal” agreement. Under such a deal, the US might allow Iran to access some frozen assets abroad in exchange for a commitment by Tehran to halt production of 60-percent enriched uranium, cease attacks on American troops in Iraq and Syria through its proxies in the region, and release American citizens detained in Iran.

While JCPOA negotiations remain 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. Iran has claimed that this was accidental and due to “unintended fluctuations” in enrichment levels. On 4 March, the IAEA and the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran—the main Iranian government agency responsible for operating nuclear energy and nuclear fuel cycle installations—released a joint statement indicating that Iran has 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.

The Secretary-General’s 23 June report refers to the IAEA’s latest findings on fissile material in Iran, as outlined in the agency’s May report. The IAEA estimated that the country’s stockpile of 60-percent enriched uranium had further increased to 114 kilograms over the past three months. The report said that the agency was 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, the IAEA’s report noted that the agency had installed surveillance cameras at some workshops where centrifuge parts are manufactured—although IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said in his introductory statement at a 5 June IAEA Board of Governors meeting that only a “fraction” of the envisioned measures had been implemented.

The Secretary-General’s report also describes developments related to paragraph 4 of annex B to resolution 2231, which stipulates that all states must obtain prior approval from the Security Council to participate in the transfer to or from Iran of materials that could contribute to the development of nuclear weapon delivery systems, including certain ballistic missiles and UAVs. In March, the UK invited the UN Secretariat to examine ballistic missile components seized by the British Royal Navy in February from a vessel travelling in international waters in the Gulf of Oman. The UK assessed the components to be of Iranian origin and transferred from Iran in a manner inconsistent with resolution 2231. In response, Iran and Russia submitted joint letters expressing concern at the February seizure, as well as prior seizures by the British Royal Navy in 2022, and contesting the evidence linking the intercepted vessels and their cargo to Iran. The Secretary-General’s report says that while the Secretariat has not yet examined the components seized in February, “based on a preliminary examination of the photographic evidence provided, the Secretariat observed that some of these components appear to have design characteristics and markings similar to components it has examined previously among the debris of ballistic missiles launched by the Houthis towards the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates”. The report says that the Secretariat is “still analysing the available information and will report to the Council, as appropriate, in due course”.

Regarding the alleged transfer of UAVs from Iran to Russia, the Secretary-General’s report refers to a series of letters sent in May and June by France, Germany, Ukraine, and the UK, referring to evidence purportedly showing that Iran has continued to transfer UAVs to Russia since October 2022 and reiterating the countries’ request for the Secretariat to examine the debris of UAVs found in Ukraine. Iran and Russia again contested these claims, which they alleged “were not substantiated with any credible evidence”. The Secretary-General’s report does not take a stance on the issue, saying that the Secretariat “continues examining the available information regarding the alleged transfer of UAVs” and will report “any findings” to the Security Council “as appropriate, in due course”.

During tomorrow’s meeting, Council members are likely to emphasise the importance of achieving a diplomatic solution to the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme and stress that the window for reviving the JCPOA is closing. Some members may criticise Iran for not complying with its obligations under the agreement and call on it to increase its cooperation with the IAEA. Others may criticise the US for withdrawing from the deal and call for the removal of US sanctions. Some may call for confidence-building measures to defuse growing tensions, possibly with reference to the ongoing Omani-facilitated indirect talks between the US and Iran. The UK and France might also refer to their recently announced decision to retain sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile programme past the expiration of the UN sanctions—which are set to end in October, per resolution 2231—due to Iran’s alleged transfer of UAVs to Russia.

Council members disagree as to whether the Secretariat has the authority to investigate alleged violations of resolution 2231. Note S/2016/44 of 16 January 2016, which sets out the practical arrangements and procedures by which the Council carries out tasks related to resolution 2231, requests that the Secretary-General report to the Council “every six months on the implementation of resolution 2231”. The reports issued by the Secretary-General pursuant to this request often refer to communications received from member states regarding possible violations of resolution 2231 and outline the work undertaken by the Secretariat in response to these communications and the findings arising from that work. Russia has regularly objected to this type of reporting, while other Council members, including the P3 (France, the UK, and the US) have welcomed it. Some members may reiterate their positions on this issue at tomorrow’s meeting.

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