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"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
Daryl G. Kimball

Risks and Realities of Extending the UN Arms Embargo on Iran

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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.

Description: 
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.

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No One Wins an Arms Race or a Nuclear War


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By Daryl G. Kimball

Fulfilling a goal outlined in its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review report, the Trump administration acknowledged last month that the United States has deployed for the first time a low-yield nuclear warhead on some U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

The move comes as the administration is proposing to increase spending to more than $44 billion next year to continue and, in some cases, accelerate programs to replace and upgrade all the major elements of the bloated U.S. arsenal. Unless curtailed, the plan, which departs in important ways from long-standing U.S. policies, will accelerate global nuclear competition and increase the risk of nuclear war.

As if to underscore the dangers of the administration’s strategy, the Defense Department led an exercise last month simulating a limited nuclear war. “The scenario included a European contingency…. Russia decides to use a low-yield, limited nuclear weapon against a site on NATO territory,” and the United States fires back with a “limited” nuclear response, according to the Pentagon. The U.S. response presumably involved the low-yield sub-launched warhead, known as the W76-2.

The exercise perpetuates the dangerous illusion that a nuclear war can be fought and won. The new warhead, which packs a five-kiloton explosive yield, is large enough destroy a large city. It would be delivered on the same type of long-range ballistic missile launched from the same strategic submarine that carries missiles loaded with 100-kiloton strategic warheads. Russian military leaders would be hard pressed to know, in the heat of a crisis, whether the missile was part of a “limited” strike or the first wave of an all-out nuclear attack.

Nevertheless, Trump officials insist that the president needs “more credible” nuclear use options to deter the possible first use of nuclear weapons by Russia. In reality, once nuclear weapons of any kind are detonated in a conflict between nuclear-armed adversaries, there is no guarantee against a cycle of escalation leading to all-out global nuclear war. Lowering the threshold for nuclear use by making nuclear weapons “more usable” takes the United States and Russia and the world in the wrong direction.

The administration plans do not stop there. Its fiscal year 2021 budget proposal calls for other new kinds of destabilizing nuclear weapons systems, including a new nuclear warhead for SLBMs, dubbed the W93, and a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile for deployment on surface ships and submarines. If developed, the W93 would be the first new warhead design added to the U.S. arsenal in more than three decades.

The Defense Department is also seeking $28.9 billion next year, a 30 percent increase, for programs to sustain and recapitalize the existing nuclear arsenal.

The Pentagon’s nuclear modernization spending binge includes $4.4 billion to begin construction of a fleet of 12 Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines; $2.8 billion for the new B-21 stealth bomber program; $1.5 billion to start work on a new ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile system; and $500 million to continue development work on a new nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missile.

The administration is also demanding a 25 percent boost for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s weapons budget, to $15.6 billion, to cover the growing cost of nuclear warhead refurbishment, design, and production work. This includes expanding the capacity to build plutonium warhead cores to at least 80 per year—an unrealistic and unnecessary goal.

The administration’s grandiose proposals not only would contribute to a dangerous global qualitative nuclear arms race, but they are excessive and unaffordable. Over the next 30 years, these and other nuclear weapons programs are estimated to cost taxpayers at least $1.5 trillion.

Worse yet, the Trump administration’s program of record would sustain deployed strategic warhead numbers at levels 30 percent higher than the Pentagon itself determined in 2013 is necessary to deter nuclear attack. Taken together, Trump’s policies to “greatly strengthen and expand” the U.S. nuclear capability and his failure to engage in good faith negotiations to end the arms race and pursue disarmament are a violation of U.S. obligations under Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

It does not have to be this way. First, the Trump administration needs to heed calls from military officials, U.S. allies, and bipartisan national security leaders to take up Russia’s offer to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty by five years before it is due to expire early next year. Without the treaty, the doors to an open-ended global nuclear arms competition will swing open. History shows that there are no winners in a nuclear arms race.

Second, the Congress, and perhaps a new president in 2021, must rein in the exploding cost and scope of the U.S. nuclear modernization program, particularly the efforts to develop “more usable” nuclear weapons. Hundreds of billions of dollars can be saved by delaying, trimming, or eliminating major elements of the current plan while maintaining a devastating nuclear deterrent. This would allow for those monies to be redirected to other, more urgent national security projects and domestic programs that address real human needs.

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