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"I learned so much about arms control and disarmament at ACA! I learned more about arms control here in four months than I had in all three years at my college."

– Alicia Sanders-Zakre
Intern, Fall 2016
December 16, 2016
EU / NATO

Parties Make Progress on Iran Deal Restoration

The United States, Iran, and the other parties to the 2015 nuclear deal expressed varying degrees of optimism over the progress made during recent talks in Vienna on the necessary steps to restore full implementation of the accord. The parties met April 15-20 and are set to return to Vienna next week for further discussions on the steps necessary to bring the United States and Iran back into compliance with the nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The United States and Iran are still not talking directly, which has slowed the process, but EU political...

Restoring the Nuclear Deal with Iran Benefits U.S. Nonproliferation Priorities

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Volume 13, Issue 1, March 15, 2021

Iran has systematically breached key limits imposed by the 2015 nuclear deal since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced in May 2019 that Tehran would reduce compliance with the accord. Iran’s decision to violate the multilateral nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was a direct response to former President Donald Trump’s decision a year earlier to withdraw from the accord and reimpose sanctions in violation of U.S. obligations.

Iran’s nuclear program does not currently pose an immediate proliferation risk and there is no indication from U.S. intelligence that Iran has resumed weaponization-related activities, but its breaches are becoming increasingly more serious and difficult—if not impossible—to fully reverse.

While these breaches are troubling, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has gone to great lengths to keep the door open to restore full implementation of the nuclear deal and reverse Iran’s violations, if the United States lifts sanctions in compliance with its obligations under the accord.

Time is short, however, as both the Biden and Rouhani administrations face considerable domestic pressure opposing restoration of the accord. Neither wants to be perceived as making the first move or making a unilateral concession.

President Joe Biden’s failure to take early action to send a signal of U.S. good faith intentions also appears to have spurred debate in Tehran over whether or not he is serious about his stated approach of “compliance for compliance” to restore the nuclear deal, or if he intends to try and renegotiate the terms of the agreement.

Biden faces pressure from policymakers, particularly opponents of the JCPOA in Congress, to use the Trump administration’s sanctions to leverage additional concessions from Iran on a range of issues. This rhetoric further reinforces doubts in Tehran about Biden’s intentions to restore the deal. However, the idea that the Trump administration’s sanctions have created viable leverage to pressure Iran to make further concessions fails to take into account that U.S. credibility was severely diminished by Trump’s reimposition of sanctions in violation of the deal. There is little support for reimposed U.S. sanctions, which are perceived as jeopardizing an agreement that advanced global nonproliferation interests, and Iran has no interest in new negotiations until the nuclear deal is restored.

If the JCPOA collapses and Iran continues to ratchet up its nuclear activities, some U.S. allies and partners may join a U.S. pressure campaign, but the Biden administration would be hard-pressed to reconstitute the level of international support seen before the negotiations on the JCPOA. Russia and China in particular would be unlikely to support a pressure-based approach after Trump’s treatment of the nuclear deal, barring a clear indication that Iran intended to pursue nuclear weapons. Furthermore, Iran can also ratchet up its nuclear activities far more quickly than the United States could attempt to restore international support for sanctions and diplomatic isolation, giving Tehran its own leverage.

A quick, complete compliance-for-compliance restoration of the JCPOA remains the best option to roll back Iran’s nuclear program, create the time and space for future negotiations on a range of issues, and restore U.S. credibility.

The EU, as the convenor of the negotiations on the JCPOA, is the logical choice to coordinate steps by both sides to resume full implementation of their JCPOA obligations and appears willing to take on that role. Concrete action by the United States to support its stated preference for returning to the deal may help pave the way for an EU-led approach, but with increasingly serious violations of the JCPOA on the horizon and Iran’s presidential elections in June, time is short. It may behoove the EU to present a proposal of its own detailing the necessary reciprocal steps for the United States and Iran to meet their JCPOA obligations.

Failure to restore the deal risks Tehran taking further steps that increase the risk posed by its nuclear program and igniting a destabilizing nuclear competition in the region, both of which would set back U.S security interests and international nonproliferation priorities.

Maximum Pressure Triggered Nuclear Breaches

Under the JCPOA Iran is subject to stringent limitations on its nuclear program and intrusive monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In return, the P5+1 (the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, Germany, the EU, and, formerly, the United States) committed to waiving sanctions imposed on Iran. The United Nations Security Council also endorsed the deal in Resolution 2231 (2015), which lifted certain UN sanctions on Iran and levied restrictions on Iranian conventional arms and ballistic missile transfers.

Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018— despite acknowledging Iran’s compliance with the multilateral agreement and over the objections of key U.S. allies. Trump also ordered the reimposition of sanctions that had been lifted or waived under the JCPOA, violating U.S. obligations under the accord. From May 2018 until Trump left office in Jan. 2021, the administration continued to aggressively deny Iran any benefit of remaining in compliance with the nuclear deal and actively opposed efforts by the remaining parties to the deal to engage in legitimate trade with Iran and complete cooperative nuclear projects—even those that benefited U.S. nonproliferation priorities.

The failure of the remaining parties to the JCPOA to deliver on sanctions relief in the year after U.S. withdrawal drove Rouhani to announce in May 2019 that Iran would begin violating the JCPOA. He said Iran would continue to ratchet up its nuclear activities until sanctions relief in oil sales, banking transactions, and other areas of commerce were restored.

For nearly a year following Rouhani’s May 2019 announcement, Iran systematically announced new breaches to the JCPOA’s limits on uranium enrichment, research and development on advanced centrifuges, and stockpile size. Those breaches were carefully calibrated, overseen by IAEA inspectors, and were largely reversible, supporting Rouhani’s assertion that all JCPOA violations taken by Iran are about pressuring parties to the deal to deliver on sanctions relief and not intended to collapse the deal or impede a full restoration of the deal’s limits down the road.

In Dec. 2020, the Iranian parliament and Guardian Council approved a bill calling on the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to significantly ramp up certain nuclear activities in violation of the deal. That law, hastened by the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, went into effect Dec. 23. The actions required by the nuclear law, some of which have already begun, pose a more serious risk to the JCPOA. The new law, for instance, requires Iran to take significant steps to ratchet up its uranium enrichment program, such as boosting enrichment levels to 20 percent uranium-235—a purity Iran had not reached since 2013 when Tehran agreed to cap enrichment amid JCPOA negotiations. The law also includes new breaches, including suspending more intrusive monitoring activities and beginning the production of uranium metal, which would be more difficult to reverse.

To date, between the breaches announced in 2019 and steps taken in line with the Dec. 2020 legislation Iran has:

  1. Breached stockpile limits of 300 kilograms of uranium gas and 130 metric tons of heavy water;
  2. Enriched uranium above the 3.67 percent uranium-235 limit set by the deal;
  3. Operated advanced centrifuges in excess of the JCPOA’s limits and used certain models to produce enriched uranium in violation of the accord;
  4. Resumed enrichment at the Fordow facility in violation of the deal;
  5. Abandoned operational restrictions on its uranium enrichment program;
  6. Suspended the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement and JCPOA-specific monitoring measures (a special arrangement with the IAEA is in place); and
  7. Produced gram quantities of natural uranium metal and begun work on a uranium metal production plant (the plant is not yet operational).

(For more information on the status of Iran’s violations of the JCPOA see “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action At A Glance.”)

Heightened but Manageable Proliferation Risk—For Now

In total, Iran’s violations have increased the proliferation risk posed by Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s activities to ratchet up its uranium enrichment capacity have reduced the time it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for one bomb from about 12 months (when the nuclear deal is fully implemented) to about three months, as of Feb. 2021. That breakout time will continue to shorten if Iran installs and brings online advanced centrifuges, as required by the 2020 nuclear law, and its stockpile of uranium enriched up to 20 percent continues to grow.

The Dec. 2020 nuclear law requirements stipulating that Iran stockpile uranium enriched to 20 percent and install and operate advanced centrifuges, in particular, accelerate the decrease in breakout. Iran’s advanced machines are much more efficient than the IR-1s to which Iran is limited to using under the JCPOA. The IR-2m centrifuge is estimated to be about three to four times more efficient than the IR-1 and the IR-6 an estimated seven to eight times more efficient. In total, if Iran operates 1,000 IR-2s (about half of which are already enriching) and 1,000 IR-6s (as required by the end of 2021 under the law), in addition to the 6,104 IR-1s already enriching uranium, Iran’s enrichment capacity will increase by about threefold.

Enriching to 20 percent also increases proliferation risk, as that level constitutes about 90 percent of the work necessary to enrich to weapons-grade (above 90 percent uranium-235). Once Iran has accumulated enough 20 percent enriched gas for a bomb, about 250 kilograms (or about 170 kilograms by weight), it could likely produce what is known as a significant quantity of nuclear material (one bomb’s worth, or 25 kilograms of uranium enriched to greater than 90 percent) in less than two months given its current enrichment capacity. As of mid-February, Iran had about 17 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent (by weight) and it intends to produce 120 kilograms (by weight) during 2021, suggesting that Iran will not reach a bomb’s worth of 20 percent material before the end of the year at the current pace.

The decrease in breakout time is a concern. But even if Iran decided to pursue nuclear weapons, it is unlikely that Iran would withdraw from the JCPOA and the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to produce just one bomb, particularly given that Tehran has never tested a nuclear device. Any such move would be met by swift international condemnation and the reimposition of sanctions. Iran has uranium enriched to less than 5 percent that, when enriched to weapons-grade, would be enough for a second bomb, but it would take another two to three months. Then Iran would need to covert and weaponize the material—a process that could take another year to 18 months.

The 12-month breakout time can be restored relatively quickly by reversing Iran’s breaches of the uranium enrichment limits—a process that could itself likely be accomplished in under three months with significant political will. Enriched uranium above the 300-kilogram stockpile limit can be quickly shipped out or blended down to natural levels, excess machines dismantled and stored, enrichment halted at Fordow, and enrichment levels dialed back to 3.67 percent uranium-235. Knowledge gained by operating advanced centrifuges is not reversible, but the excess machines themselves will be dismantled and stored under IAEA seal, so Iran will not be able to access them without inspectors knowing. Furthermore, the efficiency of the advanced machines can be taken into account in calculating and determining an acceptable breakout time in follow-up negotiations.

Work on uranium metal is more problematic. The JCPOA bans uranium metal production for 15 years because of its applicability to weapons development. While Iran claims it is pursuing uranium metal for reactor fuel, the knowledge gained would still be relevant to weaponization processes.

Though it is widely suspected that Iran experimented with uranium metal as part of its pre-2003 nuclear weapons program, it does not appear to have significant experience with large-scale production and much of the experimentation appears to have been done with surrogate metals. Restoring the JCPOA’s limits before Iran gains that valuable and irreversible expertise with metal production would benefit long-term U.S. nonproliferation priorities.

The risk posed by these breaches is further amplified by Iran’s decision to suspend the more intrusive monitoring mechanisms required by the JCPOA, including the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement. Inspectors will still be in place and have access to sites where Iran produces and stores its nuclear material as part of Iran’s legally required safeguards agreement under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

However, the suspension of the more intrusive measures could create gaps in the IAEA’s understanding of Iran’s nuclear program, as the additional protocol gives inspectors regular access to all facilities that support the nuclear program and complimentary access to follow up on concerns about undeclared nuclear activities. Decreased access will make it more difficult to monitor Iran’s breaches of the deal and likely increase speculation about illicit nuclear activities.

Iran and the IAEA did agree to a special three-month technical arrangement Feb. 21—two days before Iran’s suspension of the measures—that will allow certain agency monitoring beyond Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement. Iran also committed to collect certain information relevant to the additional protocol—including tapes of continuous surveillance activities—and hand that information over to the IAEA upon sanctions relief.

Ideally, the hand-over of information will allow for inspectors to reconstruct Iran’s nuclear program during the three-month period and will mitigate any speculation of illicit activities in the absence of stringent IAEA oversight. However, the special arrangement is not a viable solution in the long term, particularly if any concerns emerge about illicit activities and materials, but it does manage the risk and buy time for diplomatic action to restore the JCPOA.

Restoring Mutual Compliance with the 2015 Nuclear Deal

Although Iran’s systematic breaches of JCPOA limits constitute serious violations of the agreement, the deal itself has proven to be an effective, verifiable arrangement when it is fully implemented. It is possible to restore the deal’s nonproliferation benefits—but only if the parties to the deal act swiftly to fully implement the JCPOA’s obligations.

There is no indication at this point that Iran is pursuing or intends to pursue nuclear weapons, but the violations have increased speculation about illicit nuclear activities and worn the patience of the European members of the deal. E3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) frustration was manifest in a recent gratuitous attempt to censure Iran for its suspension of the additional protocol during the March meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors. While the E3 concern about the decrease in monitoring is warranted, pursuing the resolution risked the special technical arrangement and the space for Iran, the United States, and the parties to the JCPOA to meet to discuss restoring the accord.

Returning to full implementation of the deal will require coordination by the United States and Iran. Unsurprisingly, while both U.S. President Joe Biden and Rouhani support a restoration of the JCPOA and a mutual return to full compliance, neither wants to be perceived as acting first or unilaterally. Both appear interested in partaking in discussions facilitated by the EU, which the EU appears eager to do, but creating the necessary political conditions for all sides to accept an invitation remains a challenge.

Given that the Trump administration triggered this crisis—namely by reimposing sanctions in violation of the deal— and provoked Iran’s violations of the accord, further signaling by the Biden administration of U.S. good faith could promote an environment conducive to coordinating restoration of the nuclear deal. Biden’s failure to act early upon taking office in Jan. 2021 prompted concern in Tehran that the new U.S. president was not serious about restoring the deal as is, and that he might try to renegotiate it—a position unacceptable to Tehran.

To date, the Biden administration has insisted that it will not grant sanctions relief before talks on restoring full compliance with the deal. But the White House could take steps to signal good faith, such as reinstating waivers for JCPOA-required nonproliferation projects that would help facilitate Iran’s eventual return to compliance and more definitive action in support of humanitarian efforts. Such steps could help restore confidence in Tehran that Biden is serious about restoring the JCPOA and demonstrate that the United States acknowledges Rouhani’s efforts to keep the window open for diplomacy.

Failure to act swiftly risks the JCPOA collapsing. A collapsed JCPOA would have severe implications for regional stability and international security, as Iran’s program would be unrestrained and subject to far less monitoring at a time when the United States faces a significant credibility deficit.

Even in the absence of the accord, it is highly unlikely that Iran would make the decision to pursue nuclear weapons, but restricted IAEA monitoring and no limits on uranium enrichment would raise speculation over covert Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions. This could spur other states in the region to match Iran’s perceived nuclear capabilities or attempt a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities—an act that would only set back the program and be more likely to spur Tehran to pursue nuclear weapons to deter future attacks. Dissolution of the JCPOA would also significantly compromise the likelihood of Iran engaging in future nuclear nonproliferation agreements.

It is critical that the Biden administration not miss this window to restore the nonproliferation benefits of the JCPOA and use it as a platform for future diplomatic engagement.—JULIA MASTERSON, research assistant, and KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy

 

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Iran has breached key limits of the JCPOA since May 2019, gradually increasing the proliferation risk posed by its civilian nuclear program. Taken together, Iran's systematic and provocative violations of the nuclear deal are cause for concern and jeopardize the future of the deal. 

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E3 Put JCPOA at Risk, Luckily Cooler Heads in Vienna Prevailed

An exercise of restraint at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s Board of Governors meeting may have preserved the space for diplomatic efforts to save the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, in part due to efforts by the United States and others to sway Britain, France, and Germany from pursuing a gratuitous resolution censuring Tehran. The resolution risked jeopardizing the IAEA’s access to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities, as well as the already uncertain path toward restoration of the accord. The European members of the deal circulated a draft resolution ahead of the quarterly IAEA...

Iran, IAEA Stave Off Monitoring Crisis

Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reached a temporary agreement to mitigate the effects of Tehran’s decision to suspend certain monitoring provisions required by the 2015 nuclear deal. After a visit to Tehran Feb. 21, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi announced that Iran and the agency reached a “temporary bilateral technical understanding” that will allow the agency to “continue with its necessary verification and monitoring activities” for three months. Grossi described the technical arrangement as a “reasonable result” that will “stabilize” an unstable...

Nonproliferation Experts Call for Faster Action to Restore U.S. and Iranian Compliance with 2015 Nuclear Deal

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For Immediate Release: Feb 22, 2021

Media Contacts: Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy, (202) 463-8270 ext. 103; Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107

(Washington, DC)—Nonproliferation experts are calling on the European Union, the United States, and Iran to immediately begin technical talks on the steps necessary to restore compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

"We support European Union efforts to immediately convene discussions involving the current parties of the agreement, plus the United States, on the sequencing of the actions that the U.S. and Iranian sides will each need to take to properly implement and restore compliance with the nuclear deal,” said Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy.

"The EU should make clear that these talks are about coordinating the sequencing of the return to compliance and addressing any technical issues that might need to be resolved—such as the future of Iran’s advanced centrifuges not mentioned in the JCPOA—and that this not a renegotiation of the original agreement," she suggested.

"We urge Iran and the other JCPOA parties to respond positively to EU-brokered discussions,” Davenport added.

In a Feb. 1 interview with CNN, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif suggested that Josep Borrell, the EU’s top foreign policy official, could “synchronize” or “choreograph” the moves that the U.S. and Iranian sides will each need to implement to restore compliance with the JCPOA.

The State Department announced Feb. 18 that "the United States would accept an invitation from the European Union High Representative to attend a meeting of the P5+1 and Iran to discuss a diplomatic way forward."

But Daryl Kimball, executive director at the Arms Control Association, cautioned that “the IAEA-Iran temporary arrangement on nuclear monitoring keeps open the diplomatic window of opportunity to salvage the nuclear deal, but the opportunity will not last."

“To accelerate progress and signal his intentions, we also urge President Biden to state clearly that the United States will remove the sanctions reimposed by former president Donald Trump in violation of U.S. commitments under the JCPOA when the IAEA verifies Iran is reversing its breaches of JCPOA limits,” Kimball suggested.

“It is also in the United States interest to immediately waive sanctions on multilateral nonproliferation activities mandated by the JCPOA to convert Iran Arak heavy water reactor. This move would further signal the Biden administration’s intentions to meet U.S. commitments under the JCPOA,” he added.

"A return to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal by both sides would provide a solid foundation for potential follow-on negotiations on a longer-term framework to address Iran's nuclear program as well as on new, win-win solutions on other areas of concern, such as regional tensions and the ballistic missile programs of Iran and other states in the Middle East,” Kimball said.

Additional Resources

To help explain what is at stake and what needs to happen to restore compliance with the JCPOA and create conditions for follow-on talks, the ACA policy staff has produced three new factsheets:

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Nonproliferation experts are calling on the European Union, the United States, and Iran to begin talks on restoring compliance with the JCPOA

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Disputes Continue at UN First Committee


December 2020
By Anna Kim

The 75th session of the UN General Assembly First Committee on disarmament and international security, held remotely this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, revealed growing global concern over the decline of arms control and rising tensions between nations, particularly those armed with nuclear weapons.

South Korean Amb. Cho Hyun speaks to the UN Security Council in 2019. At this year's meeting of the UN General Assembly First Committee, he expressed hopes that a peace process with North Korea could progress. (Photo: Evan Schneider/United Nations)The European Union, Russia, and South Korea noted the challenges COVID-19 posed to nuclear disarmament, including the postponement of treaty-related meetings such as the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’s pending review conference, now deferred again from an already rescheduled early 2021 date. They also encouraged commitment to collective action and multilateralism. Others noted that the pandemic should raise awareness of biological threats and drive action at next year’s Biological Weapons Convention review conference.

Tension between nuclear-armed powers was highlighted by separate, unsuccessful U.S.-Russian talks on an extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). In the First Committee, Russia reiterated that Moscow stands ready to extend the pact without preconditions, a move that would “buy us time to consider future approaches to arms control.” The United States responded by reaffirming its pursuit of an agreement that “addresses all nuclear warheads” and expressing concern with Russia’s investment in “novel nuclear delivery systems and nuclear weapons that are not constrained by New START.” The impasse suggests that the two sides will not resolve the matter before the end of the Trump administration in January 2021.

Multiple states continued to express concern over the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 arms control agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program, and Iran’s subsequent buildup of low-enriched uranium exceeding treaty limits.

EU nations said they “deeply regret” the U.S. decision to withdraw and reimpose sanctions on Iran and “strongly urge Iran to refrain from any further actions that are inconsistent with its JCPOA commitments and return to full JCPOA implementation without delay.”

Unlike in 2019, Iran did not mention its enrichment activities or their reversibility. The United States refrained from commenting on the JCPOA at all during its general debate remarks.

Opinions were divided on how to address North Korea’s nuclear program and security on the Korean peninsula. China blamed the United States for “the deadlock of the [U.S.-North Korean] dialogue regarding the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula” and asserted its opposition to “unilateral sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction beyond the mandates” of UN Security Council resolutions.

The EU and some European countries, in contrast, expressed concern over North Korea’s missile launches and repeated their support for denuclearization. Poland called North Korean denuclearization “an absolute imperative and priority for the entire international community.” South Korea took a more optimistic tone in its statement. Cho Hyun, South Korean ambassador to the United Nations, said that “[his] government’s resolve to advance the peace process remains unwavering and [South Korean leaders] sincerely hope that [North Korea] will return to the negotiating table.”

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) also received significant attention during general debate in the wake of the August 2020 poisoning of Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader, with a Novichok nerve agent. Russia has denied responsibility for the attack.

Absent verifiable attribution of the attack to Russia by the OPCW, the United States called on Moscow to “fulfill its obligations under the [CWC] by completely declaring and destroying its chemical weapons program under international verification.” The EU said that Russia should “fully cooperate” with the OPCW to ensure an “impartial international investigation.”

The use of chemical weapons in Syria also drew attention, with Germany urging that “all those who continue to support the Assad regime and to provide cover for its crimes—in particular the Russian Federation—[should] finally live up to their responsibility.”

Russia did not respond directly to criticism for the Navalny incident, instead introducing a resolution to update the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons (SGM). This was met with significant resistance by other states, which accused Russia of attempting to undermine the SGM’s authority.

The 2020 First Committee session approved 72 draft resolutions and decisions, but rejected two: Russia’s resolution on the SGM and one on the 2021 Disarmament Commission session. The votes revealed continuing disunity between nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states, with all nine nuclear-armed states voting against a resolution on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) even as the treaty reached the 50 accessions needed to enter into force in January 2021.

The United States cast one of two votes, along with North Korea, against the resolution on the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), citing unproven claims that Russia and China continue to conduct nuclear weapons test explosions. This was the first time the United States did not abstain from the vote, which fueled concerns that the Trump administration could be planning to resume nuclear weapons testing, as The Washington Post first reported in May. The United States was also the sole vote against the resolution on the Arms Trade Treaty for the second year in a row. President Donald Trump announced in April 2019 that Washington would drop out of the treaty.

Resolutions in support of the implementation of the Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions passed with no votes against, representing continued widespread support for those initiatives. The resolution on a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East also passed 169–2–1, with only the United States and Israel voting against it.

As in previous years, First Committee member states were unable to reach consensus on a legal approach to regulating arms in outer space. Five resolutions were introduced on the topic, which reflected highly varied perspectives on disarmament. The United States, Russia, and China each accused others of having intentions to weaponize space while emphasizing their own commitment to developing a legal infrastructure. The First Committee also discussed cybersecurity and emerging technologies.

Russia Fails to Weaken UN Chemical Weapons Investigations

A Russian effort to undermine the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism for Investigation of the Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons (SGM) was rejected by the UN General Assembly First Committee on Nov. 4. Moscow had offered the resolution and called for a review of SGM guidelines ahead of the First Committee vote, arguing that the guidelines had not been updated since the late 1990s.

The mechanism grants the secretary-general authority to launch an independent investigation into alleged incidents of chemical or biological weapons use on request by a UN member state. For example, the SGM investigated the use of chemical weapons in Syria in 2013, prior to Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s UN representative, said the SGM has “clearly become obsolete.”

The European Union criticized Russia’s efforts as misguided and politically driven. Speaking on behalf of the group, Germany recalled an attempt by Russia in December 2019 to criticize further strengthening of the mechanism, arguing that doing so would create a de facto legally binding verification regime for the Biological Weapons Convention. “Against this background,” Germany’s representative told the First Committee on Nov. 4, “it seems unlikely that the motive behind this resolution is to strengthen [the SGM].”

“It is not immediately clear why there would be an urgency to review the guidelines and principles again,” he added, noting that Russia’s proposed resolution threatened the SGM’s independence by subordinating it to the UN Security Council. The resolution proposed that the Security Council play a greater role in the mechanism’s work, specifically with respect to investigating incidents of biological weapons use.

The resolution failed to pass the First Committee with 31 votes in favor, 63 against, and 67 abstentions.—JULIA MASTERSON

The annual UN session on disarmament and international security reflected the full range of arms control disputes.

NATO Completes Annual Nuclear Exercise


December 2020

The Netherlands hosted NATO’s annual nuclear exercise in October, which included the German Air Force practicing delivery of U.S. nuclear bombs believed to be stored at Büchel Air Base, according to reports.

A German Eurofighter taxis at Nörvenich Air Base in 2013. The base was used as a site for this year's NATO exercise Steadfast Noon. (Photo: Neuwieser/Flickr)“Today’s exercise shows that allies are determined to ensure that NATO’s nuclear deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg while visiting Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands for the exercise on Oct. 16. “The purpose of NATO’s nuclear deterrent is not to provoke a conflict but to preserve peace, deter aggression, and prevent coercion.”

This year, the training flights took place over parts of western Europe and the North Sea.

The annual exercise, known as Steadfast Noon, is designed to practice and assess NATO’s nuclear capabilities deployed in Europe. It is planned far in advance and involves more than 50 aircraft from several allied air forces. The aircraft do not carry live bombs during the exercise flights.

The United States deploys an estimated 20 B61 tactical bombs each at Büchel and Volkel air bases, according to the Federation of American Scientists. About 100 U.S. tactical bombs are believed to be deployed at bases in Belgium, Italy, and Turkey.

German reports said that this year’s nuclear exercise involved the Nörvenich Air Base, which is an alternative site for the nuclear bombs stored at Büchel.

The Russian Defense Ministry released a statement on Oct. 23 criticizing the exercise. “Such actions lead to a lowering of the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons, provoke a further increase in tension along the Russia-NATO contact line, and negatively affect the level of trust in Europe,” said the ministry.—SHANNON BUGOS

NATO Completes Annual Nuclear Exercise

WEBINAR: "The Future of the Iran Nuclear Deal and the NPT"

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Thursday, October 1, 2020
11:00 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time
via Zoom webinar 

The Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has led Iran to retaliate by exceeding key nuclear limits set by the deal. The U.S. strategy has hobbled but not unraveled the agreement and increased tensions with Iran and the international community. Unless Washington and Teheran return to compliance, however, the deal could collapse entirely creating a serious new nuclear crisis in the region.

In this edition of the “Critical NPT Issues” webinar series sponsored by the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and the Arms Control Association, our panelists reviewed the benefits of the JCPOA, the current status of noncompliance, pathways to repair the situation, and the potential effects on the global nonproliferation system and the upcoming 10th Review Conference of Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Panelists:

  • Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy, Arms Control Association;
  • Ellie Gerenmyah, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program and Senior Policy Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations; and
  • Emad Kiyaei, Director, Middle East Treaty Organization (METO)

Our next webinar in the Critical NPT Issues series will address steps to fulfill Article VI of the NPT. We encourage you to sign up to receive invitations to future webinars and other updates from the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and the Arms Control Association.

RESOURCES

For more information on the JCPOA, subscribe to the P4+1 and Iran Nuclear Deal Alert from the Arms Control Association, which provides periodic news and analysis on the negotiations and implementation of the nuclear deal. 

If you want to follow discussions on nuclear weapons during the 2020 session of the UNGA First Committee, subscribe to the First Committee Monitor, a publication of WILPF’s disarmament programme Reaching Critical Will, or visit their resource page for more information.

 

Description: 

In this edition of our “Critical NPT Issues” webinar series, we will review the benefits of the JCPOA, the current status of noncompliance, pathways to repair the situation, and the potential effects on the upcoming NPT Review Conference.

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Creating an Opportunity to Withdraw U.S. Nuclear Weapons From Europe


October 2020
By Pia Fuhrhop, Ulrich Kühn, and Oliver Meier

In May 2020, a debate erupted in Germany on the future of NATO nuclear sharing and Berlin’s participation in the arrangement that has seen U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in European nations for decades. This may well turn out to be an opportunity for the alliance, European security, and arms control. Even though it might not sound very realistic today, within the next five years the United States could withdraw the tactical weapons it deploys in Europe with no negative consequences for NATO unity and the security of Europe. In order to secure such an outcome, German leaders and NATO policymakers will have to combine reassurance and arms control in novel and smart ways.

Tornado fighters are the only nuclear-capable aircraft in Germany's arsenal. A plan to replace them has sparked a debate over whether the nation and other NATO allies should continue to host U.S. nuclear weapons. (Photo: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)The German nuclear debate was triggered by a mid-April decision by the German Defense Ministry to replace its current fleet of Tornado dual-capable aircraft with 90 Eurofighter Typhoon and 45 U.S. F-18 fighter aircraft. Thirty of the F-18s would be certified to carry U.S. nuclear weapons.1

The plan, announced by German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), quickly attracted criticism not only from opposition parties. Rolf Mützenich, leader of the Social Democrat (SPD) group in the Bundestag, made clear that a discussion about the Tornado replacement would have to include a debate about the new aircraft’s nuclear role. Mützenich argued that the risks associated with continued deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons would outweigh their potential security benefits. He concluded that “it is about time that Germany in the future excludes the deployment” of nuclear weapons on its territory.2 The SPD is a partner in the nation’s governing coalition with the CDU.

Kramp-Karrenbauer clarified that it would be up to the next Bundestag to make a decision on the procurement of a new aircraft and conceded there would be plenty of “room for debate” on the aircraft decision during the campaign for the September 2021 parliamentary elections and while negotiations on a new coalition government would take place.3

Under nuclear sharing arrangements, NATO allies jointly discuss, plan, and train nuclear missions. According to estimates, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey are hosting up to 150 U.S. B61 nuclear gravity bombs on their territories. These countries, except for Turkey, provide their own dual-capable aircraft for the delivery of nuclear weapons in times of war.4 Details of the arrangement remain shrouded in secrecy, although an estimated 20 U.S. nuclear weapons are deployed at Büchel air base in western Germany.

Social Democratic Party of Germany politician Rolf Mützenich speaks to the media in June in Berlin. In May, Mützenich initiated a discussion over the possibility of no longer hosting U.S. nuclear weapons on its German territory. Mützenich’s call for a debate on NATO nuclear sharing triggered predictable criticism. Proponents of the status quo argued that the security situation in Europe provides neither political nor military room for changing NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements. They also maintained that a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Germany would undermine alliance solidarity. Some even argued that questioning nuclear sharing would hand Russian President Vladimir Putin a diplomatic victory. Others are concerned that Berlin would lose influence over NATO’s nuclear policies, should Germany give up its role as a host nation.5

Beyond such well-known positions, the debate revealed interesting nuances and unique insights. In contrast to previous discussions, many participants distinguished between the operative and technical aspects of sharing associated with the forward deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe, on the one hand, and the political aspects involving consultations on NATO’s nuclear policy in the alliance’s respective consultative bodies. Thus, supporters of changes to nuclear sharing pointed out that a withdrawal of nuclear weapons does not mean the end of Berlin’s involvement in nuclear sharing. Even without hosting the B61s, Germany would still participate in NATO nuclear discussions, planning, and exercises, for example in the Nuclear Planning Group. Also, there is now broad agreement across the political divide in Berlin that nuclear weapons deployed in Europe do not have a military role that other conventional or nuclear weapons assigned to NATO could not fulfill. Last but not least, the security concerns of central and eastern European allies, and therefore Germany’s responsibility for European security, turned out to be a key issue in the debate.

Although the debate has subsided since May, the nuclear controversy will return when the Tornado replacement decision comes up in parliament. Hence, there is good reason and sufficient time to explore how steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons can be brought in line with the security and arms control priorities of Germany, its NATO partners, and ideally Russia.

A Five-Year Moratorium

To provide the ground for potential political compromises, Russia and NATO should refrain from introducing new, destabilizing weapons to Europe until 2025. Such a five-year moratorium would make sense given that the next German and U.S. administrations would be in office until 2025. During those five years, the next review cycle of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) will be completed. From a German perspective, a five-year freeze would be feasible because the Tornado aircraft can be kept operational at least until 2025.

 

Germany has a crucial role to play as an interlocutor. Berlin should urge Moscow and Washington to make use of the current window of opportunity to discuss reductions to nuclear weapons in Europe. A moratorium could prepare the ground for a more comprehensive, sustainable debate on security and stability in Europe. To achieve that goal, NATO should propose to Russia specific, reciprocal, and politically binding arms control measures. One should expect that many NATO allies would support such a moratorium as long as its goals are well communicated and the process is coordinated at NATO headquarters. At the same time, Berlin’s ability to bring all necessary actors to the table would be a litmus test of Germany’s influence in the alliance.

Moscow, for its part, would have to commit not to deploy additional land-based, nuclear-capable, short- and medium-range missiles in the European part of Russia. Moscow has already declared that it keeps warheads for such weapons separate from missile launchers and other means of delivery.6 To increase the credibility of that pledge, Russia would need to be transparent with regard to its central storage sites and communicate the movement of nuclear warheads.7 Russia’s infamous 9M729 missile, which NATO believes violates the now-defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, must be verifiably stored at these sites, at least until 2025.

NATO in return would commit to refrain from deploying additional land-based, intermediate-range missiles in Europe. This would build on the alliance’s commitment not to deploy additional nuclear weapons in Europe in response to the demise of the INF Treaty.8 The alliance would also pledge not to transfer new, modernized B61-12 weapons to Europe before 2025.9 NATO’s Aegis Ashore missile defense site in Poland, currently under construction, would only become operational by 2025 at the earliest.

On the basis of such a moratorium and on reciprocal commitments to halt the deployment of destabilizing weapons, Germany could wait for the results of U.S.-Russian talks before deciding on the procurement of new aircraft. As a consequence, the Tornado might have to fly a few years more. This should be a price worth paying in exchange for giving arms control a serious chance.

As such, an agreement on a moratorium would be a success in its own right and pave the way for confidence-building measures between NATO and Russia. In close coordination with its allies, Berlin could push three parallel debates: on the forward deployment of nuclear weapons, on NATO reassurance, and on arms control between the alliance and Russia.

Forever Forward Deployment?

The five allies hosting U.S. nuclear weapons could use the moratorium to begin consultations among each other on their perspectives on and possible reforms of nuclear sharing. In Belgium and the Netherlands, political support for the continued deployment of nuclear weapons is fragile. The German public has also consistently opposed hosting nuclear arms.10 U.S. nuclear weapons in Turkey are in dangerous vicinity to the war in Syria, and Ankara has recently flirted with the idea of its own nuclear arms.

Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has just appointed a new experts group,11 a brainchild of German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. If former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden wins the presidential election in November, the group might well be charged with preparing the alliance’s next Strategic Concept in the context of the NATO 2030 reflection process. The group should therefore immediately discuss the future of nuclear sharing arrangements. Given the unpopularity of the presence of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in many European host nations, it would be important that the group, which is co-chaired by former U.S. diplomat Wes Mitchell and former German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière, discuss nuclear issues as transparently as possible. Including all relevant stakeholders in that process would increase the legitimacy of any recommendations the group might produce.

Strengthening Reassurance

Proponents of the nuclear status quo often argue that reductions in U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe are at odds with the security interests of central and eastern European NATO allies. From this perspective, a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons, for example from Germany, would undercut the principles of burden sharing and of alliance solidarity. Therefore, all allies would have to thoroughly discuss and agree on changes to NATO’s nuclear posture in Europe.

Berlin has a particular responsibility for its partners to the east. At the same time, Germany has to do a better job at bringing together collective defense via NATO and cooperative security with Russia. Combining reassurance with arms control, Germany would be following in the best of NATO traditions, such as the 1967 Harmel Report, which recommended a combination of strength and dialogue to overcome conflict and division.12 Particularly in times of U.S. unilateralism, it should not be difficult to find many supporters of such a dual-track approach. With such a unifying strategy, a German “Sonderweg,” leading to a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons, would also be much less likely.

German solidarity would have to begin with a greater contribution toward substantive reassurance measures. Currently, 24 allies contribute to NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Poland and the three Baltic states. It is no secret that the four countries would like to see additional reinforcements, given Russia’s conventional edge in the region.

Germany should step up to the plate. As an essential first step, Berlin should actually provide those conventional capabilities that it has already promised. Currently, gaps exist in Germany’s contribution to NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), which would be the first to respond should NATO’s eastern flank come under attack. The German government recently had to concede that the forces it contributes are not fully equipped or readily deployable. Over the next three years, German armed forces probably would have to improvise if they were to take on the role as VJTF lead nation. Germany could also contribute more toward air policing and surveillance of the NATO-Russian border region.

Critics might argue that additional efforts to enhance NATO conventional reassurance toward eastern Europe would violate the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. Among other things, the act prohibits the permanent stationing of additional “substantial combat forces” on the territories of new member states. Although the term was never officially clarified, possible additional conventional German units on the eastern flank might be in violation at least of the spirit of the act.

A new combination of collective and cooperative security would also be necessary, however, because the NATO-Russia Founding Act has de facto established two different zones of security within the alliance, a recurring cause for valid complaint in eastern Europe. In 2022 the act will celebrate its 25th anniversary. Until then, the conventional reassurance of eastern Europe must become part of an overall package between Russia and NATO, which ideally would make the act redundant.

Time for Action

Any such comprehensive agreement would be more sustainable with Moscow’s support. French President Emmanuel Macron’s initiative for strengthened arms control might still be a starting point for engaging with the Kremlin. To test Russia, the alliance should offer talks about conventional and nuclear arms control. Internally, the allies could agree on their position on arms control in NATO’s Special Advisory and Consultation Committee on Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.13 Reaching agreement on an arms control initiative, the allies would place the ball in Russia’s court.

In any case, talks on transparency and perhaps even limits on conventional forces would be complicated and would have to focus on the most urgent threat perceptions.14 Concerns about a Russian land grab indicate that traditional conventional force imbalances still matter. There are also concerns that Moscow might prepare a surprise attack under cover of one of its notorious snap exercises. Russia must therefore be willing to discuss constraints on certain conventional forces and capabilities close to the NATO-Russian border. Of course, it would also be desirable to limit dual-capable, long-range strike weapons and novel weapons technologies, as well as hybrid forms of warfare, but it is rather easy to overburden the agenda. The security of central Europeans would already be improved if it were possible to significantly reduce the risk of surprise attacks.

In parallel, both sides should urgently discuss measures to reduce nuclear risks. The forward deployment of nuclear weapons would have to be part of such an agenda. For years, Moscow has repeated its mantra that it is willing to address its own stockpile of an estimated 2,000 tactical nuclear warheads were the United States to withdraw its nuclear arms from European soil. It is about time to turn the table and ask the Kremlin which reductions to its tactical stockpile it would accept, should the alliance be willing to change its nuclear posture in Europe. It is not a sign of NATO’s strength that allies avoid bold initiatives by simply pointing to Russian intransigence.

A Package Deal

NATO needs to bring together the interests of the nuclear host nations with the legitimate security requirements of the other allies. This can be done by pursuing three parallel tracks on reforming the forward deployment of nuclear weapons, strengthening reassurance, and getting serious about arms control. Should the alliance succeed in reaching an agreement with Russia on specific measures to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in Europe, withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from all host nations and in a coordinated and consistent manner would be possible.

Intermediate steps are feasible. Washington might relocate B61 warheads to the United States but keep the nuclear infrastructure intact until Moscow has irreversibly removed its tactical nuclear arms from the European part of Russia. In any case, NATO would continue nuclear consultations, for example on the UK and U.S. strategic nuclear weapons assigned to the alliance.

If Moscow rejects the alliance’s arms control initiative after a five-year period, Germany would likely decide to continue hosting U.S. nuclear weapons, but Berlin would do so on the basis of having invested serious political capital in significantly strengthening stability through reassurance and arms control. Ideally, Germany would have initiated a process that leads to reducing instabilities and which puts NATO cohesion on a more solid footing. Simply continuing the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe without addressing Europe’s underlying insecurities contributes neither to stability or cohesion.

ENDNOTES

1. Oliver Meier, “German Politicians Renew Nuclear Basing Debate,” Arms Control Today, June 2020.

2. Rolf Mützenich, “Es wird Zeit, dass Deutschland die Stationierung zukünftig ausschließt,” Tagesspiegel, May 3, 2020.

3. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, “Eine Bückentechnologie,” Süddeutsche Zeitung, April 22, 2020.

4. Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “Tactical Nuclear Weapons, 2019,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 75, No. 5 (2017): 252–261.

5. For an overview of such arguments, see Sophia Becker and Christian Mölling, eds., “(Nuclear) Sharing Is Caring: European Views on NATO Nuclear Deterrence and the German Nuclear Sharing Debate,” DGAP Report, No. 10 (June 2020).

6. The director of NATO’s nuclear policy directorate, Jessica Cox, confirmed that, by 2010, Russia had “consolidated its tactical nuclear weapons at ‘central storage facilities’” and “removed tactical nuclear weapons from its ground forces.” See Jessica Cox, “Nuclear Deterrence Today,” NATO Review, June 8, 2020, https://www.nato.int/docu/review/articles/2020/06/08/nuclear-deterrence-today/index.html.

7. For a proposal on how to monitor such an arrangement, see Pavel Podvig, “Nuclear Weapons in Europe After the INF Treaty,” Deep Cuts Issue Brief, No. 10 (June 2020), https://deepcuts.org/files/pdf/Deep_Cuts_Issue_Brief_10-NW_Post-INF_Europe.pdf.

8. “Press Conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg Following the Meetings of NATO Defence Ministers,” June 26, 2019, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_167072.htm?selectedLocale=en.

9. Deployment of the B61-12 is expected to begin during 2022-2024 at the earliest. See Kristensen and Korda, “Tactical Nuclear Weapons, 2019,” p. 258.

10. A July 2020 poll found that 83 percent of Germans support complete withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Germany. Other polls have consistently found that approximately two-thirds would support such a move. See, “Greenpeace-Umfrage zu Atomwaffen und Atomwaffenverbotsvertrag,” July 2020, https://www.greenpeace.de/sites/www.greenpeace.de/files/publications/umfrage_atomwaffenverbotsvertrag__0.pdf.

11. “Secretary General Appoints Group as Part of NATO Reflection Process,” March 31, 2020, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_174756.htm.

12. Ulrich Kühn, “Deter and Engage: Making the Case for Harmel 2.0 as NATO’s New Strategy,” New Perspectives, Vol. 23, No. 1 (2015): 127–157.

13. See Oliver Meier, “NATO Agrees on New Arms Control Body,” Arms Control Now, February 26, 2013, https://www.armscontrol.org/blog/2013-02-26/nato-agrees-new-arms-control-body.

14. Wolfgang Zellner, Olga Oliker, and Steven Pifer, “A Little of the Old, a Little of the New: A Fresh Approach to Conventional Arms Control in Europe,” Deep Cuts Issue Brief, No. 11 (forthcoming).


Pia Fuhrhop leads the Berlin office of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg. Ulrich Kühn heads the institute’s Arms Control and Emerging Technologies research. Oliver Meier is a senior researcher at the institute.

A revitalized debate in Germany offers a path to reducing or removing U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Europe.

U.S., Allies Spar Over Iran Sanctions


October 2020
By Kelsey Davenport

The United States threatened to sanction any country that does not enforce UN restrictions on Iran that the Trump administration claims were reimposed last month, but the UN secretary-general said he will not take any steps to implement those measures, and other states dismissed U.S. claims as invalid.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell speaks to the media in Brussels on Sept. 21. He indicated that month that the United States has no standing to demand the reimposition of UN sanctions on Iran. (Photo by Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)UN sanctions on Iran were lifted or modified in 2016 as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the seven-party deal that limited Iran’s nuclear activities. Recently, the Trump administration asserted on Sept. 19 that the sanctions had been restored after the United States initiated a so-called snapback mechanism, created by UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which contains language allowing participants in the nuclear deal to reimpose UN sanctions in a manner that cannot be vetoed. The U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018 has created a dispute over U.S. standing to demand the return of UN sanctions under the terms of Resolution 2231.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sept. 19 that the United States expects “all UN member states to fully comply with their obligations under these reimposed restrictions.” Pompeo said failure to do so would result in the United States using “domestic authorities to impose our consequences for those failures.” He later threatened that “no matter who you are, if you violate the UN arms embargo on Iran, you risk sanctions.”

But Reuters reported on Sept. 19 that UN Secretary-General António Guterres told the Security Council in a letter that due to “uncertainty” over the status of the UN sanctions, he will not take any action to implement the measures. Guterres said that “it is not for the secretary-general to proceed as if no such uncertainty exists.”

The same day, Majid Takht Ravanchi, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted the U.S. “illegal and false ‘deadline’ has come and gone” and that Security Council “member states continue to maintain [the] U.S. is NOT a JCPOA participant, so its claim of ‘snapback’ is null and void.”

The United States issued a snapback notification to the Security Council president and Guterres on Aug. 20, but Security Council members, including the presidents in August and September, rejected the Trump administration’s claim that it was entitled to use the mechanism in Resolution 2231 to reimpose UN sanctions. The Trump administration took that step after it failed to pass a Security Council resolution to extend the arms embargo on Iran, which is set to expire in October according to the terms of the nuclear deal and Resolution 2231. (See ACT, September 2020.)

The United States argues that it is still listed as a participant in the nuclear deal under Resolution 2231, despite having withdrawn from the accord. The Security Council presidents and other Security Council members, including the remaining parties to the nuclear deal, have argued that the United States lacks the standing to trigger a snapback, despite still being listed as a JCPOA participant.

In a Sept. 18 letter to the Security Council, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom said the U.S. snapback is “incapable of having any legal effect” due to Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA.

France, Germany, and the UK, along with Russia and China, are all parties to the JCPOA and sit on the Security Council.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who coordinates the group of JCPOA participants known as the P4+1, said on Sept. 19 that “sanctions-lifting commitments under the JCPOA continue to apply.” He also referred to a Sept. 1 statement after a meeting of the P4+1 and Iran, which noted that the United States has not participated in JCPOA-related activities since it withdrew in May 2018 and “therefore could not be considered as a participant state.”

Russia’s ambassador to the UN tweeted more bluntly “Is Washington deaf?” and noted that “we all clearly said in August that U.S. claims to trigger snapback are illegitimate.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed his appreciation at the UN General Assembly for the Security Council’s “decisive and resounding” rejection of the U.S. attempt to reimpose UN sanctions on Iran. The United States is in “self-created isolation,” he said on Sept. 22.

Despite the widespread rejection of the U.S. claim that UN sanctions were reimposed, the Trump administration issued a Sept. 21 executive order aimed specifically at sanctioning entities that engage in conventional arms trade with Iran. The order stated that “transfers to and from Iran of arms or related materiel or military equipment represent a continuing threat to regional and international security.”

It is unclear why the Trump administration issued the order, as existing U.S. authorities already allow the president to sanction arms transfers to and from Iran.

Iran views UN sanctions relief, specifically the expiring arms embargo, as one of the few remaining benefits of continued participation in the nuclear deal after the United States withdrew and reimposed U.S. sanctions in May 2018.

But given the U.S. sanctions on Iran’s arms sales, which remained in place even when the United States was a participant in the JCPOA, the EU embargo on Iranian arms sales, and other UN measures that prohibit arms sales to Lebanon and Yemen, Iranian arms transfers will still face a number of restrictions once the UN embargo expires in October.

The United States also announced on Sept. 21 specific sanctions against individuals that are “directly involved” in Iran’s production of enriched uranium in excess of the nuclear deal’s commitments and individuals involved in Iranian-North Korean missile cooperation.

Iran initially threatened to retaliate if the UN snapped back sanctions on Iran, but did not immediately announce any new steps to violate the accord or ratchet up existing nuclear activities in response to the Trump administration’s actions. The near-universal rejection of the U.S. attempt to reimpose the UN measures appears to have mollified Tehran.

Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations on Sept. 21, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif underscored Iran’s continued commitment to the nuclear deal and its willingness to return to full implementation if all parties do the same.

Iran will “absolutely not” renegotiate the JCPOA, he said, but a “more for more” deal may be possible if the United States commits under the nuclear deal “that it will not violate it again, that it will not make demands outside the scope of the deal, [and] that it will compensate Iran for the damages.”

The Trump administration has failed to win support for its effort to reimpose UN sanctions on Iran.

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