Countdown to the Nuclear Breakdown With Iran


On January 14, the French, British, and German (EU3) ambassadors sent a letter to the United Nations Secretary-General (UNSG) Antonio Guterres highlighting that Iran’s development of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles violated UN Resolution 2231 (2015). The move brings Iran closer to being referred to the UN Security Council (UNSC).

Two days before the release of the letter, the EU3 foreign ministers met following Washington’s statement that it was “more likely than ever” that Iran would be referred to the UNSC. Iran could face crippling multilateral international sanctions if the UNSC votes that its actions are a threat to international peace. The US-led sanctions against Iran, put in motion since May 2018, have added pressure on Iran’s economy.

Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, while it has threatened under US pressure to continue nuclear enrichment with full force, which brings it a step closer to building a nuclear bomb. This comes while the future of the Iranian nuclear deal is uncertain. The United States withdrew from the deal that was concluded with Iran and other world powers in 2015, however, it offered sanctions waivers to countries such as China to help Iran develop its heavy water reactor at Arak, the Fordow nuclear facility, the Bushehr nuclear power plant, and the Tehran research reactor.

This leaves Tehran in a state of confusion regarding its options. President Hassan Rouhani’s moderate camp wants to keep Iran committed to the deal until new developments lead to negotiations with the United States. But powerful “hardliners” led by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are suspicious of any US-Iran talks. Last May, Tehran said its strategic patience was over with the parties that did not fulfill their obligations under the nuclear deal, and gradually reduced its commitments to the deal in bi-monthly intervals. In June, it confirmed that it will breach the nuclear deal by enriching uranium above the levels permitted under the deal.

The EU3 possible referral of Iran to the UNSG is based mainly on violations of its commitment to UN Resolution 2231, which requires Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.” On April 23, 2019, Iran tested the Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile variant with a maneuverable re-entry vehicle. The EU3 letter to the UN said the Shahab-3 booster is “technically capable of delivering a nuclear weapon.”

The EU3 referral also aims to trigger the nuclear deal’s dispute resolution mechanism, in an effort to revive the faltering nuclear deal. But the hardline Tasnim News Agency insists that Iran is not obliged to comply with the UN Resolution 2231 but only to show good faith. Tehran has repeatedly said it would continue to develop its missile program but does not seek nuclear warheads. Still, in January 2020, Iran threatened to pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which gives the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) full authority to monitor its nuclear program.

Tehran blames the EU3 for the latest developments. The EU3, China and Russia agreed to deliver humanitarian aid to Iran under the nuclear deal, and set up financial mechanisms for future trade. But the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) set up by Europe for this purpose is in disarray because of US sanctions despite efforts to implement it.

The United States could push for new UN sanctions against Iran. On December 5, 2019, President Donald Trump asked the UNSC to take measures against Iran. The United States is also entertaining unilaterally triggering the so-called snapback of UN sanctions on Iran. UN Resolution 2231 encourages but does not require the resolution of disputes under the nuclear deal’s dispute resolution mechanism, and the United States could push the UNSC to enforce all UN sanctions on Iran while the EU3 and Iran work out the dispute mechanisms under the nuclear deal. A referral to the UNSC triggering the snapbackof UN sanctions would permit any UNSC member, including the United States, to veto the lifting of sanctions on Iran.

There will be a divisive outcome at the UNSC if member states such as Russia and China decide to veto further sanctions against Iran or to ignore the sanctions altogether. The EU does not want to refer Iran to the UNSC yet. A joint statement said it aimed to resolve the impasse through diplomatic dialogue. But the EU may eventually comply with US demands to exert pressure on Iran.

If the UNSC remains divided in the future, Iran could be empowered to carry on with its nuclear plans. Russia has warned against the EU3-led dispute resolution mechanism being triggered, saying the time frame for a resolution should be extended given the complexity of the issues. In February, the joint commission under the nuclear deal will meet to coordinate technical discussions to resolve concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. In a new twist to this ongoing saga, the EU3 has now said that it won’t be referring Iran to the UNSC at this moment in time and wants to extend indefinitely the time frame for resolving the dispute with Iran under the JCPOA. This EU3 position is likely to increase tensions with the US which continues with its maximum pressure strategy and escalation against Iran. 

Editorial Team