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Myths and Realities: Unraveling the Impact of the UN Security Council Resolutions on Iran
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Arms Control NOW

Authored by Kelsey Davenport on October 15, 2014

Between 2006 and 2010, the UN Security Council has passed six resolutions related to Iran’s nuclear program. As Iran negotiates with the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) misconceptions abound about what the UN Security Council resolutions require Iran to do and how the resolutions impact conditions in a final nuclear deal.

The Security Council resolutions were never intended to prevent an Iranian nuclear program in the future in compliance with the conditions of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. And the sanctions imposed by the resolutions should be lifted as Iran fulfills its treaty obligations.

The contemporary diplomatic context of the Security Council resolutions is also relevant.  When the Security Council began considering action on Iran’s nuclear program in 2006, it was at the request of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran was not complying with the IAEA’s investigation into Iran’s past nuclear activities related to weapons development and was not providing timely notification of new nuclear facilities planned for construction as required by its safeguards arrangements with the agency.  In addition, Iran’s negotiations with the international community, then represented by Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, or the EU3, were not making progress at the time.

Due to the impasse with the IAEA and international community, the resolutions also call on Iran to suspend certain nuclear activities, including its uranium-enrichment program and construction on the Arak heavy-water reactor, which is capable of producing plutonium suitable for weapons.

Members of the UN Security CouncilPrior to submitting the first report to the Security Council in March of 2006 and requesting Security Council action on the Iranian nuclear question, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei said Security Council action could “serve as a forum to find ways and means to bring back all the parties to the negotiating table.”

When Iran did not comply with the suspension or IAEA investigation, the Security Council issued sanctions on Iran to prevent the further expansion of its nuclear program. These sanctions targeted materials and technologies relevant to nuclear activities.

The Security Council sanctions were never intended to be permanent – rather the sanctions were intended to be a tool to spur Iran to cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation and negotiate an agreement on Tehran’s future nuclear program with the international community. Sanctions relief should come as Iran continues to work with the IAEA to complete the agency’s investigation and on a nuclear deal with the P5+1.

Misconception: The UN Security Council resolutions require Iran to stop uranium enrichment.

Since July 2006, the Security Council has passed six resolutions calling on Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment activities. None of the six resolutions call for Iran to dismantle its enrichment facilities or permanently halt enrichment.  All six contain the same language promoting a diplomatic resolution to the concerns over Iran’s nuclear program that respects Tehran’s right to a peaceful nuclear program.

During debate over the first resolution in 2006, Russia’s Ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said that the resolution’s requirements should be seen as an “interim measure,” for the period necessary for resolving the issue.

Churkin’s statement is consistent with the language in the resolution, which says that suspension and Iranian compliance with the IAEA would “contribute to a diplomatic, negotiated solution that guarantees Iran’s nuclear programme is for exclusively peaceful purposes.”

Adopted on July 31, 2006, the first UN Security Council Resolution (1696) concerning Iran’s nuclear program called for Tehran to “suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development, to be verified by the IAEA,” within one month’s time.

When Iran did not suspend its enrichment, five subsequent resolutions in December 2006 (1737), March 2007 (1747), March 2008 (1803), September 2008 (1835) and June 2010 (1929), used the same language on suspension of enrichment activities.

Churchkin and ElBaradei’s sentiments were echoed throughout the debate on the most recent resolution in 2010. On June 9, 2010, British Ambassador to the UN Mark Lyall Grant, speaking on behalf of the P5+1, said the resolution was intended to keep “the door open for continued engagement” with Iran over its nuclear program. He said that the purpose of such diplomatic efforts must be to achieve a comprehensive, long-term settlement, that respects Iran’s legitimate right to the peaceful use of atomic energy.

Misconception: The UN Security Council resolutions require Iran to dismantle the heavy-water reactor at Arak.

Resolution 1696 required Iran to suspend “reprocessing activities.” At the time, in 2006, Iran did not have any known reprocessing capabilities--nor does it now--and had informed the IAEA in 2004 that it did not intend to build a facility that could be used for reprocessing the spent fuel that would be produced by the heavy water reactor under construction at the Arak site.

The second resolution, 1737, that the UN Security Council adopted in December 2006 expanded the suspension from Resolution 1696 to include “work on heavy water-related projects, including the construction of a research reactor moderated by heavy water.” The reactor referred to in Resolution 1737 is the Arak IR-40 heavy water reactor.

This language is repeated in the subsequent four resolutions adopted by the UN Security Council to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.

As with the provisions to suspend uranium enrichment activities, the requirement to suspend work on the heavy water-related project was intended as an inducement for Iran to come into compliance with its obligations to the IAEA, not a prescribed  end-state for Iran’s nuclear program.

Kelsey Davenport