The UN Security Council in session on October 27, 2022

Q & A: Snapback, Drones, The UN, & The Iran Nuclear Deal

Sunday, 12/18/2022

The UN Security Council meets Monday to discuss SC Resolution 2231, passed in 2015 to endorse the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA).

The United States, France, and the United Kingdom are arguing that Russia and Iran are violating UN Security Council Resolution 2231 by Tehran sending military drones to Moscow. While US spokesman Vedant Patel told a press briefing Friday that he was “not going to get ahead of the UN internal deliberations,” there has been chatter for months that the US wants to restore UN sanctions against Iran under a ‘snapback’ procedure in the JCPOA.

What is ‘snapback,’ and why does it matter?

The JCPOA lifted international sanctions against Iran in return for strict limits on the Iranian nuclear program. Under the terms of the JCPOA, the sanctions can ‘snapback’ if Iran violates the agreement.

Is Iran violating the agreement?

Iran began breaching JCPOA limits – for example enriching uranium to 60 percent rather than the permitted 3.67 percent, and by using more advanced centrifuges – in 2019, the year after President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 agreement and imposed ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions.

So why is ‘snapback’ being raised now?

It has come up because France, Germany, the US and the UK have told the UN that Iran’s supply of military drones to Russia for use in Ukraine breaches a clause in Resolution 2231 required prior UNSC approval (up to October 2023) for the transfer to and from Iran of certain military equipment and weapons. These powers say Iran’s supply of drones violates that clause – and this has raised the possibility of snapback, under which multilateral sanctions would come back onto Tehran.

Does the drone supply for sure violate Resolution 2231?

That is yet to be decided. Monday’s meeting may produce a view from the UN secretariat as to whether Russia and Iran are violating Resolution 2231 – following up a request for an investigation made in a letter sent in October by the US, France, Germany and the UK.

Snapback relates to “significant non-performance of commitments.” Resolution 2231 refers to a 79-page document submitted at the time by the US – S/2015/546– that listed categories of weapons needing prior Security Council approval. S/2015/546 refers to drones “capable of delivering at least a 50kg payload to a range of at least 300km,” and while Iranian-made drones can have a range of over 1,000km they carry a slightly lighter payload. There would be a clearer violation if Iran transferred Fateh-110 and Zulfiqar missiles.

How would ‘snapback’ work?

Any party to the JCPOA can move snapback within the ‘JCPOA Commission.’ If after 30 days, the issue is not resolved, then UN sanctions would come back into effect. For the issue to be resolved, a UNSC member would need to move at the Security Council that sanctions not come back into play, and this could be vetoed by any other member.

This was the basis for the claims from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry at the time the JCPOA was signed that Russia, or China, could not stop snapback. It’s as if the veto power is reversed.

But can the US move ‘snapback’? Didn’t it leave the JCPOA?

When the Trump administration tried to move snapback in 2020, other JCPOA members, including the three European signatories (France, Germany, and the UK) said it couldn’t because it had left the agreement.

But this interpretation has been challenged. Gabriel Noronha, an Iran advisor 2019-21 to Trump, argued in tweets November that the US could still move snapback.

What would be the practical effect of snapback?

Some say the ‘bark’ would be worse than the ‘bite.’ For Europe to reimpose sanctions on Iran would make little difference given its trade has massively reduced under US ‘maximum pressure,’ under which the US can penalize any third party for dealings with Iran, and which has left Tehran unable to access billions frozen around the world. Russia and China will argue that the US left the JCPOA and is in no position to cite it to justify any actions.

What are US intentions?

State Department Spokesman Ned Price has been unenthusiastic when asked about snapback, although his references November to a possible Russian veto were speedily rebutted by Noronha. US officials have referred to various other means of restricting Iran-Russia links, including US sanctions on Iranian defense companies and generals.

Washington may be less concerned over Iranian-made drones – which are useful to Russia but less effective in the conflict than the publicity suggests – than over the possible transfer of missiles. US strategy is to run down Russia’s military capacities.

How is the Ukraine war affecting talks to revive the JCPOA?

One reason for the US not to move snapback may be the logic, inherent in the JCPOA, that the nuclear file should be kept largely separate from other issues. Given JCPOA critics argue such separation is difficult, if not impossible, the Biden administration is saying it can take stringent measures against Iran – over missiles, or treatment of protests – while remaining open to reviving the JCPOA. Only time will tell if they are right.

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