Grappling with U.N. Sanctions

Last week, negotiators in the ongoing nuclear talks grappled with how quickly to lift United Nations sanctions on Iran if a deal is reached.  Reuters reported on March 12 that negotiators were discussing a U.N. Security Council resolution to lift these existing sanctions.  The sanctions underpin the economically taxing energy and financial restrictions adopted by the European Union and the United States.  U.N. resolutions also restrict Iran’s nuclear and missile programs and Iran’s arms exports and imports.

The U.N. sanctions under discussion were passed in four rounds between 2006 and 2010 in response to Iran’s refusal to suspend sensitive nuclear work.   Taken together, these resolutions bar Iran from importing or exporting most conventional weapon systems, as well as items related to uranium enrichment, reprocessing, heavy water and nuclear weapon delivery systems, including dual-use nuclear and missile items.  They also prohibit states from providing Iran with financial or technical assistance aimed at acquiring these items, and they impose an asset freeze on some 120 Iranian entities supporting nuclear and missile work.  Resolution 1929 of June 2010 broadened the asset freeze to companies related to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines.  It also required Iran to cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency, including the Agency’s ongoing investigation of the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program.

Official statements over the past week confirmed that negotiators on both sides foresee a new U.N. Security Council resolution of some kind.  White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, in a March 14 letter to Senator Bob Corker, said that the administration anticipated a Security Council resolution “to register its support for any deal and increase its international legitimacy.”   French Ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, posting on Twitter on March 12, said that in the event of an agreement, a Security Council resolution would endorse the deal by lifting some of the U.N. sanctions and authorizing some level of uranium enrichment by Iran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also told the Iranian magazine Seda on March 7 that any nuclear agreement should be endorsed by a U.N. Security Council resolution.  Such a move, Zarif said, would make the deal “an international agreement, the enforcement of which would be mandatory for all states.”   However, Obama administration officials have insisted that any nuclear agreement with Iran would be a non-binding executive agreement that would not impose any legal obligations on future U.S. administrations.  In a March 12 blog post, Harvard Law Professor Jack Goldsmith wrote that depending on the specific wording, a U.N. resolution under Article 41 of Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter could nonetheless impose an obligation under international law on “the nations of the world to not impose certain sanctions on Iran as long as it complies with the deal.”

The speed of sanctions relief is another sticking point.  During the talks, Tehran has demanded that all sanctions be lifted immediately.  The United States has insisted that sanctions be removed only gradually.  Ambassador Araud, in a March 13 Twitter post, reiterated the P5+1 position that the lifting of any sanctions be “incremental, reversible, [and] conditional.”

If a deal is reached, negotiators will also face the challenge of maintaining restrictions on proliferation-sensitive goods that could support secret nuclear work or enhance Iran’s nuclear-capable missiles.  According to the findings from a 2014 Wisconsin Project roundtable discussion, an effective nuclear deal must include a means of monitoring and controlling all of Iran’s procurement activities with possible nuclear applications.  Iran imported materials relevant to its nuclear enterprise illicitly for many years and continues to do so.  A final deal must prevent such imports and limit Iran’s ability to improve its missiles.  The best way to accomplish this would be to set up an agreed channel for nuclear and missile imports that would be exclusive.  No import outside the channel would be permitted, and such a channel would include a mechanism for regulating what Iran is allowed to buy.  Without this monitored channel, there would be a great risk that Iran could divert newly-permitted imports to secret sites.