Security Council Resolution 2231 and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s Nuclear Program

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Last week I did a couple of posts elsewhere on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), agreed on July 14 between the P5+1 and Iran regarding Iran’s nuclear program. See here and here. These posts may be of interest in explaining the essential agreement contained in the JCPOA, and in examining some of its key legal implications.

The JCPOA is the culmination of twenty months of negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran, since the initial Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) was agreed by the parties in November 2013. I wrote a post discussing the JPOA here at EJIL:Talk! at the time it was agreed.

I’d like to focus this post on the unanimous passage by the U.N. Security Council on July 20 of Resolution 2231, which can be found here. Resolution 2231 comprises 104 pages of text, inclusive of two annexes, one of which is the entire JCPOA text. I mention this because my primary impression in reading over Resolution 2231 and is annexes for the first time, was frankly astonishment that the parties had been able to agree on such an amazingly complex, thorough and comprehensive diplomatic accord. I was also impressed by the precision of the text of Resolution 2231 itself (apart from a couple of typos) in implementing, in what appears to be a very sophisticated and, as far as I can tell, correct way, the agreement reached by the parties on July 14.

The JCPOA itself and Resolution 2231 appear to represent a major success of international diplomacy, as well as a significant achievement of international law in facilitating the implementation of the diplomatic accord. Again, it is difficult to overstate the complexity of the issues that had to be resolved among the parties to arrive at both the JCPOA and Resolution 2231. And the specificity with which these issues were addressed in both documents – down to weights and measures and dates of implementation – is frankly astonishing, and far exceeds my expectations.  And so I compliment all of the diplomats and lawyers involved.

The purpose of Security Council Resolution 2231 is primarily to endorse the JCPOA, which is itself a legally non-binding agreement, and to implement the actions of the Security Council which were agreed to in the JCPOA. Specifically, the Security Council decides in Resolution 2231 that on Implementation Day, as defined in the JCPOA, the previous resolutions of the Security Council regarding Iran’s nuclear program will be terminated. Implementation Day is scheduled to occur when a number of essential actions are taken by Iran, and by the U.S. and the E.U., as spelled out in Annex V of the JCPOA. Practically speaking, Implementation Day is likely to occur within the next 6-8 months.

So again, within the next 8 months, according to Resolution 2231, all of the Security Council’s previous resolutions on Iran regarding its nuclear program, inclusive of sanctions applied pursuant to those resolutions, will be terminated. This is subject, however, to a “snapback” procedure, described in operative paragraphs 11-13 of Resolution 2231. According to this “snapback procedure,” any party to the JCPOA, including Iran, can lodge a complaint with the Security Council at any time alleging substantial noncompliance with the JCPOA’s terms by any other party. If no resolution can be achieved on the matter, the Security Council will vote on whether to continue in effect the termination of its previous resolutions. If this vote by the Security Council fails – e.g. if one of the permanent members votes against it – all of the Security Council’s previous resolutions, including the sanctions implemented thereby, will come back into effect. This process was particularly sought for inclusion by the United States, so that U.S. officials could truthfully say to a skeptical Congress that the U.S., acting alone (i.e. as complainer, and as a permanent member of the Security Council), could if it wished cause the re-application of Security Council sanctions in the event that Iran substantially failed to comply with the terms of the JCPOA.

Assuming the “snapback” procedure is not implemented, however, after the termination of previous Security Council resolutions occurs on Implementation Day, Resolution 2231 puts in their place a more limited, continuing set of restrictions on trade with Iran, which are to continue until UNSCR Termination Day. UNSCR Termination Day is scheduled in the JCPOA to occur in 10 years from Adoption Day. This interim set of restrictions is outlined in Annex B to Resolution 2231, and includes restrictions on trade with Iran, primarily in items and technologies related to Iran’s nuclear program. It does, however, allow for some exceptions for permissible trade in technologies necessary to support the 6,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges which Iran is allowed to maintain in operation throughout the term of the JCPOA.

The restrictions also, notably, include the continuation for five-years of the conventional arms embargo which was a part of previous Security Council resolutions on Iran. The continuation of this arms embargo was one of the more contentious points of the JCPOA negotiations between the parties, and this five-year extension is the resultant agreed compromise.

Importantly, from the perspective of Iran, if all sides abide by their commitments under the JCPOA, Resolution 2231 provides that:

 [O]n the date ten years after the JCPOA Adoption Day, as defined in the JCPOA, all the provisions of this resolution shall be terminated, and none of the previous resolutions described in paragraph 7 (a) shall be applied, the Security Council will have concluded its consideration of the Iranian nuclear issue, and the item “Non-proliferation” will be removed from the list of matters of which the Council is seized;

 For Iran, this promise represents its ultimate aspiration on this issue – the full removal of international sanctions related to its nuclear program, and its treatment as a lawful possessor of peaceful nuclear energy capabilities.

There would appear to be no “poison pills,” or impossible, or even unreasonable commitments for any party in the text of the JCPOA or in Resolution 2231. Optimism is therefore warranted that this aspiration will be achieved.

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