On 18 October 2015, ninety days after UNSCR 2231 (which incorporated and endorsed the JCPOA), the agreement came into effect and established a timeline for the resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue. On 16 January 2016 the IAEA confirmed in a report to the Council that Iran was in compliance with nuclear-related commitments outlined in the agreement, terminating the provisions of previous sanctions resolutions and substituting them with restrictions outlined in Annex B of the JCPOA.
The entry into force of Annex B of the JCPOA on 16 January 2016 placed the Iran sanctions regime in a state of calculated ambiguity, in which a set of euphemisms are used to replace sanctions-related terminology. While sanctions under Chapter VII were lifted, “restrictions” with equal effect were established under “Article 41” (under Chapter VII of the Charter). The Sanctions Committee was dismantled and replaced by a UNSCR 2231 “Facilitator” and the role of the PoE was taken over by the Secretariat which hired additional personnel to cover the monitoring of the Iran agreement.
This ambiguity, a response to Iran’s demands for diplomatic normalization, contributed to creating an atmosphere conducive to the implementation of the JCPOA, but also complicated the actual enforcement of the measures. The lack of clarity affects private sector implementation and maintains uncertainty about investing in Iran – possibly diminishing returns for Iran and complicating the implementation of the JCPOA in the future.
Since January 2016, the IAEA has reported to the Security Council 11 times that Iran has been in compliance with its nuclear-related obligations under the JCPOA. It has repeatedly verified the absence of non-declared nuclear material, the non-diversion of the materials declared, and the provisional application of the Non-Proliferation Treaty Additional Protocol, as well as other transparency measures agreed upon. Despite its compliance, Iran reiterated its view that it “has not been able to fully benefit from lifting of Sanctions due to a series of deficiencies and/or non-performance on the part of either U.S. or the EU.”
As the Secretary-General stated, however, the JCPOA is only one part of UNSCR 2231 (2015), and there have been concerns over Iran’s alleged violation of the restrictive measures described in the resolution’s annex B. First, Iran has conducted medium-range ballistic missile tests. While there is a controversy within the UNSC as to whether this violates the JCPOA (Iran argues the missile was not designed to carry a nuclear warhead, others say it could be easily adapted), the resolution (and subsequent SG reports) called upon Iran to avoid ballistic missile launches. Second, weapons of Iranian origin and/orshipped from Iran were seized in or on their way to Syria and Yemen, in a clear violation of the arms export embargo.
From a technical standpoint, the implementation of the UNSCR 2231 and the JCPOA, with its Joint Commission and procurement channel for nuclear materials, has been appropriate. Between Implementation Day (16 January 2016) and June 2018, 37 proposals were submitted to the special procurement channel, with 24 being approved, 3 disapproved, 7 withdrawn, and 3 remaining under review.
The greatest challenge to the implementation of the JCPOA and UNSCR 2231 has been political. With the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in 2016, the prospects for a smooth implementation of the agreement were severely compromised. On 8 May 2018, the United States announced its withdrawal from the JCPOA citing Iran’s involvement in armed conflicts in the region, a decision the Secretary General “deeply regret[ted].” However, the United States chose not to initiate the so-called sanctions “snapback” mechanism in the JCPOA, preferring to simply withdraw from the agreement unilaterally. This was possibly motivated by a choice to avoid the lengthy dispute-settlement mechanism necessary for the re-imposition of UN sanctions. In response to the US unilateral withdrawal, the other parties pledged to continue to abide by the agreement. In the current climate of uncertainty, the effectiveness of the agreement remains threatened by the re-imposition of US unilateral sanctions and the subsequent threat of US secondary sanctions on those who engage in business relations with Iran.
Constrain Iran’s access to sensitive technologies in support of its nuclear and missile programs, and from supporting armed groups in the region.
Signal a relative normalization in relations with Iran on the nuclear issue.
Previously imposed conditional restrictions (bunkering ban) were terminated.
Sanctions were imposed for a limited time period. Proliferation sensitive goods and technology and investment ban restrictions were imposed for 10 years from JCPOA Adoption Day (18.10.2015), restrictions related to development of nuclear weapon delivery systems and asset freeze were imposed for 8 years, and restrictions on arms and travel were imposed for 5 years.
All UNSCR 2231 restrictions will be terminated earlier if IAEA report confirms the Broader Conclusion of JCPOA or terminated and replaced with provisions of UNSCR 1696, 1737, 1747, 1803, 1835, and 1929 as a result of significant non-performance of commitments by Iran under the JCPOA and UNSCR 2231 “snapback” mechanism.
Sanctions Committee and Panel of Experts were dissolved (their functions taken over by other actors – Security Council, UN Secretariat, and the Secretary General).
Designation criteria were specified and targets designated (maximum number of designees during the episode – 23 individuals, 62 entities; currently remaining on 23 individual designees, 61 entities). Enforcement authorities specified.
While Iran’s nuclear program has been constrained by the IAEA inspection requirements of the JCPOA, its ballistic missile program and arms exports have continued.
While UN targeted sanctions remain in place, constraints to the development of Iran’s nuclear program came chiefly from the enhanced monitoring and verification mechanisms established in the JCPOA.
The change of tone and very careful language used in resolutions, agreements and reports signal the relative normalization of relations with Iran, but the ambiguity provoked by the use of euphemistic and ambiguous language harm the clarity of the signal and a more complete de-stigmatization of Iran. The United States decision to withdraw from the agreement undermined the unified Security Council message on Iran.
UN sanctions are the main mechanism through which the normalization of diplomatic relations with Iran takes place, although unilateral sanctions and broader diplomatic and commercial activities are also important.
Strengthening of political factions, increase in international enforcement capacity in different issue domains.