August 06, 2015

Iran Tracker Blog: Iran has no qualms about exploiting the nuclear deal's weaknesses

If there is one thing the Iranian leadership wants you to know, it is that the recently signedJoint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) will not in any way compromise Iran’s ability to defend itself from military coercion or attack. The language in the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231 endorses the nuclear deal, but also continues the ballistic missile and conventional arms embargoes for eight and five years respectively. This has put President Hassan Rouhani and other leaders in a bit of defensive posture. Rouhani, in a live nationwide televised interview on August 2, argued that the JCPOA was more than what the government initially expected to gain from the P5+1 and urged Iranians not to worry about the UN resolution:

"UN Security Council Resolution 2231 adopted last July in the wake of nuclear agreement will not create a national security problem…under its provisions Iran’s arms sanctions have been reduced to limitations…Iran’s military capabilities, its commercial and scientific secrets will by no means be [compromised]."

The Supreme Leader’s Senior Foreign Policy Advisor Ali Akbar Velayati reiterated this position in an interview with Al Jazeera:

"Let me stress that the missile issue and the defense capabilities of Iran are not at all part of the agreement. Iran has never, and will never, negotiate with other countries…about the quality and type of the missiles that Iran produces or controls, or what type of defensive military equipment Iran requires."

Velayati’s point about weapons restrictions not being part of the agreement is an important one. The JCPOA does not directly address the missile and conventional arms embargoes; only the new UN resolution does. The language of the new resolution is a weakened version of language from UNSCR 1929 passed in 2010, which read that the Council:

"Decides that Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missilescapable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology, and that States shall take all necessary measures to prevent the transfer of technology or technical assistance to Iran related to such activities." [emphasis mine]

The new UN Security Council resolution 2231 instead states:

"Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missilesdesigned to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology, until the date eight years after the JCPOA Adoption Day or until the date on which the IAEA submits a report confirming the Broader Conclusion, whichever is earlier." [emphasis mine]

The new resolution is no longer legally binding (Iran is just called upon to do something) and it requires that missiles would need to be specifically designed to deliver nuclear weapons to merit UN sanction, rather than simply theoretically capable of nuclear weapon delivery (such as Iran’s intermediate range Shahab 2 and Shahab 3). In its 2013 Panel of Experts report, the UN 1737 Sanctions Committee reported that launches of the Shahab 1 and 3 “constituted a violation” of UNSCR 1929.

Lead Iranian negotiator in Vienna and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi seized on this distinction last week, claiming that none of Iran’s ballistic missiles would be effected by the new UNSC resolution since Iran’s missiles have never been designed to carry nuclear warheads in the first place. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif made this same argument the previous week.

Araghchi stressed the distinction between the JCPOA and the UN resolution, saying:

"Even if Iran tested intermediate range missiles, at maximum this is considered a violation of the resolution and is not a violation of the Vienna agreement [JCPOA]. The Vienna agreement is completely separate from the resolution…a violation of the resolution is not considered a violation of the Vienna agreement…"

It is a telling statement from the Iranian leadership that Tehran is much more concerned about potentially violating the JCPOA rather than the UNSCR. And it makes sense from their perspective. Iran was an equal partner in the negotiation of the agreement written in Vienna. The resolution, however, was drafted and imposed on Iran by the UN Security Council, however, even though Zarif and Araghchi certainly shaped its content while it was being prepared by the P5+1’s representatives in Vienna and New York. In Iranian eyes, UNSCR 2231 (like all previous UN resolutions against Tehran) lacks real legitimacy and its evasion can be consequently justified.

Foreign Minister Zarif stated this week that the US-led international sanctions regime has fallen apart, and publicly denied that the United States could quickly “snapback” sanctions. Iran sees plenty of loopholes in this deal, and its leaders are confident they can exploit them.