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Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
U.S. Seeks Iran Arms Embargo Extension | P4+1 and Iran Nuclear Deal Alert

Arms Control NOW


U.S. Seeks Iran Arms Embargo Extension

The United States is considering a range of options to prevent the October 2020 expiration of a UN embargo that restricts arms sales to and from Iran. Those options include making a legal case that the United States remains a bona fide participant of the nuclear deal with Iran that it withdrew from in May 2018 in order to use a Security Council provision to block the embargo’s expiration.

The embargo’s October 2020 expiration date is written into UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorses and helps implement the nuclear deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said May 9 that Washington “will exercise all diplomatic options” to extend the embargo. The Trump administration has indicated it will pursue a stand-alone Security Council resolution establishing a new arms embargo on Iran first, but that measure will almost certainly be vetoed. In that case, the United States has hinted at its intent to prevent the arms embargo from expiring through a provision of Resolution 2231, which grants listed participants of the nuclear deal the ability to unilaterally ‘snapback’ all UN restrictions that were lifted or would be lifted per the nuclear agreement. Snapping back sanctions through Resolution 2231 would extend the arms embargo indefinitely and cannot be vetoed.

In a May 13 opinion column published in the Wall Street Journal, Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative on Iran made that threat more explicitly, writing "one way or another, the U.S. will ensure [the arms embargo] remains in place." Hook said that "if American diplomacy is frustrated by a veto, however, the U.S. retains the right to renew the arms embargo by other means. Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015) lifted most U.N. sanctions but also created a legal mechanism for exclusive use by certain nations to snap sanctions back.” 

Reimposing all UN sanctions and restrictions on Iran would likely collapse the JCPOA and tie the hands of a future U.S. president seeking to return to the multilateral nuclear deal.

In a May 6 speech, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani threatened that “Iran will give a crushing response if the arms embargo on Tehran is extended,” and said that “Iran would never accept the extension of an arms embargo.”

Earlier this year, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also warned that Iran would withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) if referred to the Security Council over its nuclear program and faced with the reimposition of UN sanctions.

If Iran withdraws from the NPT, its nuclear program would not be limited or subject to required monitoring under international law.

It is unclear if the Trump administration's plan to pursue snapback will succeed. While the United States formally abrogated the JCPOA in May 2018 and U.S. officials have stated on numerous occasions that Washington is no longer party to the deal, Resolution 2231 was never amended to reflect U.S. withdrawal, and still lists the United States as among the “JCPOA participants” that reserve the right to unilaterally invoke the snapback mechanism.

According to Pompeo, “UN Security Council Resolution 2231 is unambiguous where the United States is a participant" and that “the rights that accrue to participants in the UN Security Council resolution are fully available to those participants.”

In response to the Pompeo’s claim that the United States is a JCPOA participant, Zarif urged Pompeo to “stop dreaming.”

Hook also told reporters April 30 that the language of Resolution 2231 clearly defines the United States as a participant of the deal. “For the purpose of resolving issues… we have certain rights that are clearly there and there’s no qualification,” Hook noted.

Yet Hook’s comments in April directly contradicted remarks he made to the press in Paris March 5, following a meeting with French, German, and British counterparts. There, Hook made clear that “we’re out of the deal.” He added that “the countries that are in the deal will make decisions that are in their sovereign capacity,” appearing to dismiss any notion that the United States could pursue snapback.

Trump administration officials reportedly shared with the Europeans a draft of a standalone Security Council resolution to indefinitely extend the arms embargo in February 2020. Although the Europeans reportedly share Washington’s concerns about Iran’s arms trade, they have made clear they do not support steps to extend the embargo that could lead to the nuclear deal’s collapse.

A European official cited by CNN said France, Germany, and the United Kingdom would not condone extending the embargo through the Resolution 2231 snapback clause because “the arms embargo is a legitimate part of the JCPOA.”

Should the United States seek to snapback sanctions under Resolution 2231, it is highly likely that the remaining P4+1 parties to the nuclear deal (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the EU) will strive to delegitimize the U.S. legal argument in order to preserve the JCPOA. In an April 30 interview with Radio Farda, EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell expressly stated that Europe does not consider the United States a participating member of the 2015 nuclear deal. Russia's Ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, said May 12 that the U.S. legal argument is "ridiculous" and that it is "unequivocal" that the Trump administration has "no right" to use the snapback mechanism.

More than three quarters of the members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed on to a May 4 bipartisan letter co-sponsored by Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Ranking Member Michael McCaul (R-Texas) urging the administration to pursue diplomatic measures to prevent the expiration of the arms embargo.

The letter does not mention the JCPOA or the snapback process, but according to a statement by Engel, “This letter, supported overwhelmingly by both parties in the House, represents an imperative to reauthorize this provision – not through snapback or going it alone, but through a careful diplomatic campaign.”

The Trump administration is adamant about extending the arms embargo on Iran. However, if the embargo expires as scheduled in October, many key restrictions governing arms sales to and from Iran will remain in place. Iranian arms sales will continue to be subject to U.S. sanctions and UN resolutions that prohibit the sale of arms to the Yemeni Houthis and to nonstate actors in Lebanon – including Hezbollah.—JULIA MASTERSON, research assistant and KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy


Iranian Military Launches Satellite

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) successfully launched its first satellite into orbit April 22, using a new space launch vehicle (SLV), the Qased.

In doing so, Iran revealed the existence of an IRGC space program for military purposes that appears to operate independently of the Iranian Space Agency. According to IRGC commander General Hossein Salami, the launch represented the commencement of Iran’s “formation of a global power.”

Iran has successfully launched satellites in the past, but the recently orbited satellite was the first to be launched from the IRGC’s missile development and launch complex, as opposed to from the Imam Khomeini Spaceport.

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo condemned the launch, saying that “Iran’s space program is neither peaceful nor entirely civilian.” His claim rests on the fact that certain technologies used in SLVs are interchangeable with technologies used in long-range ballistic missiles. Long-range ballistic missiles, however, do require technologies not utilized in SLVs, such as warhead reentry vehicles.

The Qased SLV is a three-staged rocket and is more advanced than the two-stage Safir SLV that launched Iran’s earlier satellites and the more powerful three-stage Simorgh, which has failed to deliver satellites into orbit.

The Qased also uses solid fuel in its second stage, which, according to missile expert Fabian Hinz of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, “serves as a demonstrator for the technologies crucial to the development of modern, long-range missiles including ICBMs.”

Together, the IRGC’s involvement and the new, advanced SLV have strengthened the conviction of Pompeo and others within the Trump administration that Iran is advancing its long-range ballistic missile capabilities.

Iranian officials have announced a voluntary 2,000-kilometer range limit on its ballistic missiles and have not tested missile systems over that range.

Pompeo urged the international community to hold Iran accountable for the satellite launch, alleging that it was a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which includes a nonbinding provision that calls upon Iran to refrain from the development and launch of ballistic missiles “designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” In a likely attempt to tie Iran’s April 22 satellite launch to Resolution 2231, Pompeo noted in a press statement that “no country has ever pursued an ICBM capability except for the purpose of delivering nuclear weapons.”

Iran, however, maintains that its space program is entirely peaceful. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in response to Pompeo’s claim, tweeted “Iran neither has nukes nor missiles DESIGNED to be capable of carrying such horrific arms.” Addressing the IRGC’s involvement, the Iranian telecommunications minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi said that “part of Iran’s peaceful [space] programme is civilian which is pursued by the government, while another part is for peaceful defence purposes and naturally carried out by the armed forces.”


IAEA Finalizes Global Safeguards Report

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) finalized its 2019 Safeguards Implementation Report April 29. The report, which has not been made public, contained additional details about how the agency applies safeguards in member states, including Iran, and the number of inspections conducted.

Iran was included in the list of 62 countries for which the IAEA found “no indication of the diversion of declared nuclear material from peaceful activities,” but “evaluations regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities” remain ongoing. This assessment was unsurprising, as similar language appears in recent IAEA quarterly reports on Iran’s implementation of the nuclear deal.

According to the report, the IAEA conducted 432 inspections at Iranian nuclear facilities—up slightly from the 385 conducted in 2018. The IAEA also conducted 33 complimentary access visits during 2019, which are short-notice visits that inspectors can conduct because the JCPOA requires Iran to implement the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement. The additional protocol provides the IAEA with expanded access to sites and information about a country's nuclear program. The IAEA received 21 declarations under the additional protocol to Iran’s safeguards agreement in 2019, according to the report.

Iran’s Ambassador to the IAEA, Kazzem Gharibabdi, described the report as indicating Iran’s cooperation with the agency’s inspections. He warned, however, that cooperation is “not the only option” available to Iran, and the country may revise its safeguards commitments in light of Europe’s failure to deliver on sanctions relief and the possible U.S. attempts to reimpose UN sanctions (see above).

The report also noted that the IAEA’s Iran team was comprised of 269 inspectors in 2019, down slightly from the 276 the previous year, and spent €18.2 million implementing Iran’s safeguards and JCPOA-related monitoring provisions.


State Department Compliance Report

A summary of the State Department’s annual report assessing compliance with arms control and nonproliferation agreements reiterated several accusations against Iran.

The full report has not yet been released, but the Executive Summary was published in April. Similar to the U.S. statements at the IAEA Board of Governors meetings in late 2019 and early 2020, the report noted that processed uranium was found at an undeclared site in Iran and that Tehran has failed to grant IAEA requests to inspect two sites. It also said that Iran may be in violation of its safeguards commitments for failing to declare nuclear material to the agency.

The report noted that Iran “may have maintained” files and documents related to its pre-2004 nuclear weapons program to retain technical expertise and “potentially to aid in any future effort to pursue nuclear weapons again, if a decision were made to do so.” The report also mentioned that Iran has taken steps to expand its uranium enrichment and its stockpile, but did not include any indication that Tehran intends to pursue nuclear weapons.

The State Department’s report also covers compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). Similar to past reports, the 2020 executive summary included the U.S. assessment that Iran has “not abandoned its intention to conduct research and development of biological agents and toxins for offensive purposes,” which would be a violation of the BWC, to which Iran is a state party.

The executive summary also reiterated allegations from last year’s report that Iran was in noncompliance with the CWC. Prior reports stated that the “United States cannot certify Iran has met its obligations,” but fell short of alleging noncompliance.

The 2020 executive summary listed the same set of outstanding allegations as documented in the prior report: 1) failure to declare chemical weapons transferred to Libya from 1978-1987, 2) failure to completely declare its riot control agents, and 3) failure to submit a complete listing of chemical weapons production facilities. Iran has denied the allegations.


New Commentary Reveals Failure of Swiss Trade Channel

A Swiss trade channel touted by the Trump administration and established to facilitate the transfer of necessary medical supplies and humanitarian aid to Iran has not made any additional transactions since its first in February 2020, according to a new commentary by Esfandyar Batmanghelidj of Bourse and Bazaar and Sahil Shah of the European Leadership Network (ELN).

The Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement (SHTA) made its pilot transaction in February when $2.55 million worth of medication was shipped to Iran without incurring a penalty from the U.S. economic sanctions regime. Asked about the SHTA’s activity, U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said, “more transactions [were] coming.”

In their May 6 commentary, Batmanghelidj and Shah note two factors which may affect the SHTA’s inactivity: first, the Trump administration has placed undue requirements on companies intending to use the channel, and second, U.S.-imposed sanctions and their aftermath have left Iranian banks without sufficient liquidity to engage in regular SHTA-facilitated trade.

According to Batmanghelidj and Shah, “the troubled launch of the Swiss channel offers a cautionary tale for other countries seeking to ease humanitarian trade with Iran through good faith engagement with the Trump administration.”

As the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic tore through the Iranian population in April, the ELN, together with the Iran Project, coauthored a statement warning of the ramifications that a failure to provide humanitarian relief to Iran could pose for the Iranian people and the international community writ large.

The full commentary is available on the ELN and Bourse and Baazaar websites; “As Iran faces virus, Trump admin fails to use Swiss channel to ease medical exports.”


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