Will UN action on Iranian drones in Russia kill JCPOA negotiations? - analysis

UN Secretary-General presented a neutral and passive report to the UN Security Council regarding Iran's sale of drones to Russia on Monday.

 An Iranian missile is displayed during a rally marking the annual Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Tehran, Iran April 29, 2022. (photo credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)
An Iranian missile is displayed during a rally marking the annual Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Tehran, Iran April 29, 2022.
(photo credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

Late Monday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres presented a bizarrely neutral and passive report to the UN Security Council regarding Iran’s sale of drones to Russia to help strike Ukraine – even by UN standards.

But things could change in the coming weeks and months.

The big question is whether Guterres and the UNSC might decide at some point decide to use the drone issue to snap back global sanctions on Iran relating to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal.

To backtrack, UNSC Resolution 2231 had multiple components: some dealt with the nuclear issue specifically, while others dealt with broader weapons embargoes against the Islamic Republic.

Prior to the 2015 JCPOA, there were already several UN weapons embargoes against Tehran.

 United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks at a high-level meeting to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action as part of the UN General Assembly 76th session General Debate in UN General Assembly Hall at the United Nation (credit:  JUSTIN LANE/POOL VIA REUTERS) United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks at a high-level meeting to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action as part of the UN General Assembly 76th session General Debate in UN General Assembly Hall at the United Nation (credit: JUSTIN LANE/POOL VIA REUTERS)

The JCPOA and Iran's compliance 

The JCPOA tied winding down those embargoes to Iran’s compliance with the deal’s nuclear limits.

One weapons embargo expired in October 2020, but an even more significant weapons embargo is slated to be lifted in October 2023.

Further, if nothing about the JCPOA changes, the existing mechanism to snap back global sanctions expires in October 2025, along with aspects of the nuclear limits on Iran with regard to how many uranium-enriching centrifuges it can operate.

Since June 2020 and with renewed intensity since June 2022, the IAEA Board of Governors has been issuing continually harsher condemnations of Iran, There were even hints in November that it was nearing a point where it would send the issue to the UNSC.

Yet, a return to the JCPOA has remained tantalizingly close for the West, especially since July-August.

On Monday, IAEA inspectors visited Iran to try to resolve an outstanding dispute regarding probes into three undeclared nuclear sites which the ayatollahs have failed to explain so far.

But there were strong hints from the West in July-August that if the Islamic Republic would merely agree to keep the probes open, even without truly clearing up all the open questions, sanctions would be lifted.

Similarly, the EU’s chief Iran negotiator Josep Borrell said on Tuesday that his meeting with Iranian officials in Jordan about returning to the JCPOA was critical despite all of the logjams and Western criticism of Tehran over its aid to Russia and oppression of domestic protesters.

All of this would seem to suggest that the West still wants a deal with Iran so desperately that it would not dare to refer Iran’s nuclear violations to the UNSC and risk a fight over the sanctions snapback which could permanently kill negotiations.

That is why the US position late Monday on Guterres’ passive response to the Iran-Russia-drone axis is so interesting.

In a press conference, US State Department Spokesman Ned Price repeatedly called on Guterres to formally investigate the Iran-Russia-drone axis to see if it violates UNSC Resolution 2231.

This could lead to a global sanctions snapback against Iran, even if the IAEA does not refer to the issue.

The reason this is a fascinating scenario is because it shows how much bigger the issue of Ukraine is in American foreign policy compared to the Iranian nuclear issue in a vacuum.

Though Washington, in a vacuum, would love to return to the JCPOA and get the Iran nuclear issue off of its desk, it might be willing to risk all of that, and even an escalating nuclear crisis, in order to slap Tehran down for helping Russia attack Ukraine.

America is losing patience with Guterres for waffling under threats from Moscow to withdraw aspects of cooperation with the US or freeze its cooperation to allow the grain and other food items to reach Ukraine.

A sanctions snapback, even if it came because of the non-nuclear issue of drone sales, would not merely kick in sanctions now. It could potentially push off all of the other expiration dates of the 2023 weapons embargo and beyond 2025 regarding the snapback mechanism itself.

Put simply, the drone issue has the potential to blow up the nuclear issue. It could bring global sanctions crashing down on Iran in a way that Israel has been pushing for almost two years and flip the Biden administration’s policy on Iran in one fell swoop.

Or the EU and the UN’s caution on the nuclear issue could win out and Russia and Iran may continue to violate UNSC Resolution 2231 with impunity could empty it of whatever remaining value it could have had.

But with the next IAEA Board meeting far off in March, it seems that the drone issue is what is really motivating Iran to currently send positive messages about the JCPOA in the hopes of fending off a global snapback.