Volume 12, Issue 2, March 5, 2020
More than a decade ago, the United States and its partners secured UN Security Council support for a series of resolutions imposing increasingly tough sanctions on Iran as part of an effort to pressure Tehran into multilateral talks to curb its nuclear program and block its pathways to nuclear weapons.
The United States along with China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the European Union (P5+1), combined international pressure with multilateral negotiations, a strategy that produced the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The JCPOA successfully rolled back Iran’s nuclear program, imposed a stringent new set of monitoring and verification requirements, some of which are permanent, and established an array of restrictions that limited Iran’s uranium enrichment for more than a decade, and effectively closed off its capability to produce plutonium. The deal also includes a permanent prohibition on certain nuclear weapons-related activities that also have non-nuclear applications. In exchange, Iran received relief from the United States, the United Nations, and European Union sanctions that were imposed as part of the pressure campaign.
Despite Iran’s adherence to the JCPOA, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement in May 2018 and violated U.S. JCPOA commitments by reimposing sanctions on Iran. The Trump administration also urged other countries to refrain from conducting legitimate business with Iran.
A year after Trump’s announcement, Iran stated that it would begin reducing compliance with the JCPOA, and it has taken a series of five steps designed to press the remaining parties to the deal to deliver on sanctions relief envisioned by the accord. Iranian officials continue to reiterate that its violations are reversible and that Tehran will return to compliance if its demands on sanctions relief are met.
The Arms Embargo, Nuclear Sanctions, and the JCPOA
As part of the initial, broader effort to pressure Iran into negotiating over its nuclear program, the UN Security Council passed several resolutions that imposed an arms embargo on Iran. (A full list of UN Security Council resolutions on Iran is available online.) The arms embargo provisions are, therefore, a nuclear-related sanction. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice originally emphasized in 2010, when the arms embargo was expanded as part of Resolution 1929, that the sanctions would be suspended if a nuclear deal was reached.
In a statement issued on behalf of the P5+1, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to the UN, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, made a similar point about the intent of the sanctions in Resolution 1929. He said the aim of the sanctions was “to achieve a comprehensive and long-term settlement which would restore international confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.”
During negotiations on the JCPOA, Iran argued that the arms embargo should be lifted immediately upon implementation of the nuclear deal and Russia and China supported that effort, according to former Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry said that the United States pressed for retaining it and negotiated the five-year extension, which is reflected in Annex B, Paragraph 5 of Security Council Resolution 2231.
Resolution 2231, which was adopted unanimously by the Security Council in 2015, endorsed the JCPOA, lifted the majority of the UN sanctions and modified other nuclear-related measures, such as the arms embargo and prohibition on ballistic missile transfers. Under the terms of Resolution 2231, this five-year period ends in October 2020, unless UN sanctions on Iran are snapped back into place. Kerry described the five-year extension as a victory for the United States because, as he noted in 2015, Resolution 1929 “says specifically that if Iran comes to negotiate – not even get a deal, but comes to negotiate – sanctions would be lifted.”
Now, press reports indicate that some opponents of the JCPOA are pressing Congressional members to support a renewal or extension of the arms embargo at the UN Security Council. Although these Congressional efforts do not explicitly reference support for the snapback mechanism set up in Resolution 2231, urging the Trump administration to ensure the continuation of the UN arms embargo could be interpreted by Trump as a green light from Congress to pursue that strategy. (And because a wholly new resolution seeking to extend the arms embargo on Iran would assuredly be vetoed by Russia or China.)
On a superficial level, calls for extending the arms embargo on Iran may seem like a useful and politically expedient response to Iran’s aggressive activities in the Middle East region. But in reality, such exhortations could undermine regional security by facilitating the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle the JCPOA completely.
Reimposing UN Sanctions Would Collapse the Iran Nuclear Deal
Although the Trump administration announced its withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018 and is no longer party to the agreement, some members of the Trump administration believe the United States can still use the mechanism set out in Resolution 2231 to reimpose UN sanctions on Iran, including the arms embargo. "We're aiming to get that [arms embargo] extended," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said March 5.
The Trump administration appears to believe that it can still trigger sanctions snapback at the Security Council because the United States was never formally removed from the original list of JCPOA participating states in Resolution 2231.
Other UN Security Council members, who strongly support the JCPOA, will argue that this legal argument is baseless since Trump declared that the United States is no longer a party to the JCPOA. They will surely seek to block any effort to put the issue of snapping back sanctions on Iran on the Security Council’s agenda. Once and if the issue is put on the Security Council agenda, however, the process for reimposing sanctions under Resolution 2231 cannot be vetoed.
If the Trump administration is successful in snapping back UN sanctions, the JCPOA will very likely collapse, which could trigger a new nuclear crisis.
Iran has made clear that it will withdraw from the nuclear if any state attempts to pursue a snapback at the Security Council. In that event, Iran’s nuclear program would be unconstrained and could be subject to far less intrusive monitoring.
Additionally, pushing to renew the arms embargo now based on Iran’s destabilizing regional activity further damages U.S. credibility. Arguing that the arms embargo should be extended on that basis changes the original intent and motivation behind the sanctions, which was to pressure Iran to negotiate on its nuclear program. Altering the requirements for lifting those sanctions reinforces the message to Iran that the United States cannot be trusted to waive sanctions if Tehran meets the originally described pathway to lifting the restrictions. This would make any future negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program even more difficult, as Iran will have little reason to trust the United States would follow through on its commitments.
The expiration of the arms embargo could have troublesome consequences, but the United States has other tools to address Iran’s conventional arms trade that do not risk a collapse of the 2015 nuclear deal and inflict damage to the reputation and influence of the United States.
Calls to extend the arms embargo risk conveying Congressional support for triggering the UNSC Resolution 2231 snapback mechanism, which would only escalate the Trump administration’s self-created crisis over Iran’s nuclear program and further undermine U.S. and international security.
The smarter approach for U.S. policymakers is to support more realistic and effective diplomatic efforts, beginning with a return to U.S. and Iranian compliance to the JCPOA, and a broader negotiation on a follow-on nuclear agreement that builds on the 2015 deal and that takes on other issues of mutual concern, including destabilizing arms transfers to states in the Middle East region.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy, and DARYL G. KIMBALL, executive director.