The United Nations is at the center of the Iran Nuclear Deal.
It was a series of robust international sanctions passed by the UN Security Council that first brought Iran to the negotiating table. And then, it was an action of the UN Security Council that lifted those sanctions and formally enshrined the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. Finally, it is the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, that was tasked with monitoring and verifying Iran’s compliance with the deal.
But now that the United States has pulled out of the deal and Iran is taking steps to renege on its obligations under the JCPOA, the UN may be the venue where the entire deal unravels.
The IAEA verified on Monday that Iran has begun stockpiling enriched uranium beyond the limits permitted in the deal. This may force Europe to trigger a dispute resolution mechanism created under the deal — but doing so could spark the beginning of the end of the nuclear deal.
At the United Nations, process often dictates outcome.
The formal process by which the Iran nuclear deal dies is pretty straightforward. Under the terms of the deal, there is a dispute resolution process that can be triggered by any party to the agreement should they believe there is a violation. And it is here that the Trump administration my have shot itself in the foot by formally withdrawing the United States from the deal. Since the USA is no longer part of the deal, it cannot trigger a first step in the process that could lead to the re-imposition of UN sanctions — the “snap back” of sanctions as it is known.
It is now up to the remaining parties to the deal,which includes Germany, the U.K., France, Russia and China to trigger this dispute resolution mechanism. Russia and China are unlikely to do so, which leaves the ball firmly in the United Kingdom and France’s court. But as recently as last week, both France and the United Kingdom were vigorously defending the deal at the Security Council, calling it a cornerstone of the international non-proliferation regime.
Still, a move by Iran to exceed its stockpile limits or worse, begin enriching uranium above the 3.67% enrichment levels may force the UK and France’s hand. And once they trigger that dispute mechanism, it could be as little as 65 days before the pre-deal UN sanctions are snapped back into place.
Since the US pulled out of the deal, it has no say in the intermediate steps that occur between triggering the dispute mechanisms and before a Security Council vote to snap back sanctions. European parties to the deal could delay or prevent the process from making its way to the Security Council — but it would be exceedingly hard to do so if Iran remained in non-compliance by enriching uranium beyond proscribed levels.
The final step in this process is would be a vote at the Security Council. Significantly, this vote is not to re-impose sanctions. Rather, it is to continue sanctions relief. This is because when the deal was reached it was assumed that the Iran would be more likely to breach the agreement than any veto-wielding member of the Security Council. Accordingly, the United States wanted to hold the power to veto in the event of Iran’s non-compliance. Now, should the dispute make its way to the Security Council, a vote on continuing sanctions relief would almost certainly face a US veto, which would formally kill the JCPOA.
Just as the UN gave birth to the JCPOA, it could be the venue for its demise as well.
Key decisions made at the UN in the coming weeks could spell the end of what was not long ago hailed as a triumph of diplomacy.
Go Deeper –> in this episode of the Global Dispatches podcast nuclear security expert and host of the Things that Go Boom podcast Laicie Healey explains what comes next in the escalating crisis with Iran, including whether or not there are still pathways to a re-negotiated nuclear deal.