August 15, 2020 | Foreign Policy

Don’t Let Iran Blow Up the U.N. Security Council

As a critical vote approaches, the fate of Iran nuclear sanctions—and decades of multilateralism—lies in the hands of Britain and France.
August 15, 2020 | Foreign Policy

Don’t Let Iran Blow Up the U.N. Security Council

As a critical vote approaches, the fate of Iran nuclear sanctions—and decades of multilateralism—lies in the hands of Britain and France.

The U.N. Security Council rejected on Aug. 14 a resolution that would have indefinitely extended the United Nations’ conventional arms embargo on Iran. That sets up one of the most consequential diplomatic decisions of the 21st century for the United Kingdom and France: whether to preserve the unique powers of the Security Council’s permanent members or upend 75 years of multilateralism to save a nuclear deal with Iran that begins to expire in less than 75 days.

The coming controversy surrounds U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 (UNSCR 2231), perhaps the most flawed, convoluted, and yet ingenious resolution ever passed by the Security Council. Ostensibly, the resolution merely endorsed the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In practice, it established a series of incentives for Iran to abide by its nuclear commitments, including the termination, or sunset, of the U.N. arms embargo and its restrictions on Tehran’s ballistic missile program.

The ingenuity of UNSCR 2231 lies in its creation of the snapback process, which enables any one of the council’s five permanent members (P5) to cancel the sunsets and reimpose multilateral sanctions, effectively killing the JCPOA. Whereas the reversal of Security Council actions typically requires unanimity among the P5, because of the snapback process, the preservation of UNSCR 2231 requires unanimity among the P5.

Since the council failed to extend the arms embargo on Iran, the United States is preparing to trigger a snapback. The United Kingdom and France remain deeply committed to the JCPOA, so they are searching for any procedural loophole that would enable them to strip the United States of its prerogative. London and Paris believe they have discovered precisely such a lacuna, yet if they invoke it even once, others will use it again and again to rob the P5 of their veto power. To protect a single multilateral agreement, the French and British will have to destroy the foundation of the multilateral system they claim to cherish.

The first sunset mandated by UNSCR 2231 is scheduled for October, when the U.N. prohibition on transfers of conventional arms to and from Iran will expire. In 2023, another sunset will end the U.N. ban on international support to Iran’s missile program. Additional sunsets on Iran’s nuclear program quickly follow.  Fortunately, these sunset incentives came with one condition: Iran could not breach the JCPOA’s limits on its nuclear program. UNSCR 2231 created the snapback process as a means of enforcing this condition.

The process, however, is convoluted. UNSCR 2231 defines several countries, including the United States, as “JCPOA participants” and gives each the right to file a complaint with the Security Council if Iran ever breaches its nuclear commitments. Any member of the council can then introduce a resolution to ignore the complaint and keep Iran’s sunsets intact. If no member comes forward, the presiding member of the council is compelled to offer such a resolution after 10 days. The resolution must be put to a vote and passed within 30 days of the complaint being filed—otherwise, snapback occurs. Of course, any one of the permanent members can use its veto to run out the 30-day clock. This is how the snapback process flips on its head the usual requirement for unanimity among the P5.

But here comes the wrinkle. UNSCR 2231 provided no contingency for what to do should one of the original “JCPOA participants” leave the nuclear deal. Can a party leave the deal but maintain its right to exercise the snapback mechanism? More specifically, since the United States left the JCPOA in 2018, can it still trigger the snapback as a “JCPOA participant”?

Many parties wish the answer were no. Among them: Iran, which wants to keep its sunsets; Russia and China, which both want to sell arms to Iran; and some Western Europeans who are looking for any way to save the nuclear deal. But the resolution simply was not drafted that way.

The United States is defined forever as a “JCPOA participant” in a binding Security Council resolution for the purpose of snapback. Whether the resolution was drafted this way intentionally or not makes no difference. Whether the administration of former President Barack Obama carefully negotiated the wording of UNSCR 2231 to protect a U.S. snapback right in perpetuity, or the Trump administration took advantage of a glaring oversight, the outcome is the same. The resolution, a document legally independent of the Iran deal itself, gives the United States the right to trigger the snapback if Iran breaches its commitments.

As it turns out, Iran has done exactly that. The International Atomic Energy Agency reports that Iran has enriched uranium to a purity greater than 3.67 percent; increased its low-enriched uranium stockpile to more than 300 kilograms; stored excess amounts of heavy water; tested advanced centrifuges; and restarted enrichment at the Fordow enrichment plant. At the same time, the agency reports that Iran is refusing to allow international inspectors into suspected nuclear sites and may be concealing undeclared nuclear materials and activities.

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Issues:

International Organizations Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran Missiles Iran Nuclear Iran Sanctions Sanctions and Illicit Finance