As the U.N. arms embargo on Iran nears its October 2020 expiration date, the United States has intensified its campaign to extend the ban — which was implemented as part of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal between Iran, the United States, the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, and China.
Donald Trump’s administration has proposed a draft resolution to the U.N. Security Council that would prevent Iran from supplying, selling, or transferring weapons and related materials unless the Security Council committee monitoring U.N. sanctions approves such transfers. The draft resolution also calls on all U.N. member states to inspect cargo transiting through their territory to check for illegal arms to imports or exports from Iran, and grants them authority to seize and destroy such arms.
Iran has strongly condemned the U.S. move and has said that since Washington has pulled out of the nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, it has no right to invoke the agreement’s sanctions snapback mechanism. Tehran’s U.N. ambassador Majid Takht-Ravanchi has written a series of tweets stating that “U.S. cannot be a JCPOA ‘Participant,’ since Donald Trump ceased U.S. participation,” and that “The U.S., which is in violation of the resolution — has no right to initiate anything under 2231,” referring to the U.N. resolution that codified the agreement.
Despite Iran’s strong opposition, the United States continues to work on extending the arms embargo. For their part, Iranian officials have warned that such a move would provoke a backlash from Tehran.
In a letter to the leaders of the remaining JCPOA signatories on May 6, 2020, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned against attempts to extend the arms embargo on Tehran, calling the move “a big mistake” and “a historic failure” with potentially dire consequences.
The Iranian president has also said that he had told Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany how Iran will react if the embargo is extended. But what will be Iran's reaction?
Is the end of the JCPOA near?
The possible approval of the U.S. draft resolution to extend Iran's arms embargo could put an end to Iran’s policy of “strategic patience” and might be the final nail in the coffin of the JCPOA.
At the end of his administration, Rouhani has not been able to enjoy the benefits of its greatest foreign policy achievement, the JCPOA. Now, in the year before he hands over the presidency, his government is struggling with various political, economic, and foreign policy problems, and the situation is getting worse across the board.
In the meantime, he needs to leave behind a legacy: in various speeches, Rouhani has repeatedly referred to the lifting of Iran's soon to be expiring arms sanctions as one of his government's most important achievements. Now that the JCPOA has yielded nothing for him and his government, the lifting of such bans after 13 years could have a lasting effect on his legacy after eight years in office.
A look at history can help us predict Iran's future strategy. In the final years of the reformist President Seyyed Mohammad Khatami's administration, when the U.S. acts of sabotage succeeded in breaking apart the agreements between Iran and the U.K., France, and Germany, Hassan Rouhani, who headed Iran's nuclear negotiating team at the time, announced the end of Iran’s voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment before the end of the Khatami’s government. Nevertheless, U.S. obstacles made the Iran-Europe agreements — the Saadabad Declaration of 2003, the Brussels Agreement of 2004, and the Paris Agreement of 2004 — ineffective.
Rouhani, now as president, knows very well that if his government continues to unilaterally implement the nuclear deal, he will come under more attacks from his political opponents and hardliners.
When Rouhani was criticized by his opponents in the run-up to the 2013 presidential election over the failure of the 2003 and 2004 nuclear talks, he would respond by saying that Iran unilaterally had withdrawn from the agreements and resumed uranium enrichment.
I asked a senior Iranian diplomat, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, if Tehran would leave the JCPOA in the case that the U.N. arms embargo is extended.
“We hope this does not happen, but as we have explained in more detail, both publicly and privately, to the remaining signatories to the JCPOA, this will certainly have serious consequences,” he said. “Not only withdrawal from the JCPOA, but also no other political actions will be out of Iran’s agenda.”
In sum, Rouhani should be expected not to grant the privilege of JCPOA exit to the next Iranian government, and will likely pull out Iran from the agreement himself if the extension of the U.N. arms embargo proceeds and renders it a fruitless accord.