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It’s The Enrichment, Stupid

Today’s vote by the United Nations Security Council affirming the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal that the Council’s permanent members reached with Iran last week, has been hailed as a means to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. However, it represents a formal departure from the approach that the international community has taken towards Iran’s illicit nuclear program since 2006. Contrary to the claim made by today’s resolution that it reaffirms the Security Council’s “commitment to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” it undermines the non-proliferation regime by legalizing Iran’s continued defiance of seven previous resolutions, while not insisting that Iran first comply with those resolutions.

The first resolution addressing Iran’s nuclear program was Security Council Resolution 1696, approved on July 31, 2006, which mandated that Iran suspend “all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development” in one month’s time or face possible economic sanctions.

The New York Times reported at the time that “The resolution is the first move by the Council on the Iranian nuclear program that is legally binding and carries the threat of sanctions.” However, then-Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is now Foreign Minister and chief nuclear negotiator, rejected the measure, declaring the resolution “unwarranted and void of any legal basis or practical utility.”

The UN’s action was precipitated by Iran breaking international seals at its Natanz enrichment facility in January 2006, and its decision to resume its nuclear research program in defiance of the United Nations. In April of that year, Iran announced that it had managed to produce low enriched uranium.

Iran continued to defy the United Nations, and the United States announced at the end of August 2006 that it would pursue economic sanctions against Iran.

Resolution 1737 was adopted at the end of December, stating that sanctions would be applied because “Iran has not established full and sustained suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities as set out in resolution 1696 (2006), nor resumed its cooperation with the [International Atomic Energy Agency – IAEA] under the Additional Protocol, nor taken the other steps required of it by the IAEA Board of Governors, nor complied with the provisions of Security Council resolution 1696 (2006) and which are essential to build confidence, and deploring Iran’s refusal to take these steps.”

The New York Times reported:

The resolution, prepared by Germany and the Security Council’s five permanent members — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — bans the import and export of materials and technology used in uranium enrichment, reprocessing and ballistic missiles.

Alejandro D. Wolff, the acting American ambassador to the United Nations, hailed the measure as an “unambiguous message that there are serious repercussions” for Iran’s pursuit of its nuclear ambitions. He added, however, that it was “only a first step,” saying, “If necessary, we will not hesitate to return to this body for further action if Iran fails to take steps to comply.”

Subsequently, five more Security Council resolutions were adopted to address Iran’s continued defiance.

However, as regional experts Eric Edelman and Ray Takeyh recently observed in The Washington Post, the goal of the Obama administration changed over the course of its engagement with Iran, from insisting that Iran come into compliance with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, to allowing for “a one-year breakout period that would allow Iran to maintain a substantial enrichment apparatus.” This meant that instead of preventing an Iranian nuclear breakout, it would instead be “managing its emergence.”

Iran has agreed to reduce the number of centrifuges enriching uranium from about 10,000—the number it was using before the interim Joint Plan of Action was signed in November 2013—to a little more than 5,000 under the terms of the JCPOA. But that number of centrifuges is significantly more than the number Iran had in July 2006. 5,000 centrifuges are also enough to produce enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, but far less than is necessary for peaceful purposes.

By defying the international community for nine years, Iran has achieved its goal of having a nuclear infrastructure.

Today’s resolution decided that “[t]he provisions of resolutions 1696 (2006), 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008), 1835 (2008), 1929 (2010) and 2224 (2015),” and their related sanctions, “shall be terminated.” This termination will take effect in 90 days. The only qualification for this to take place is for the IAEA to reach a “Broader Conclusion that all nuclear material in Iran remains in peaceful activities,” as mandated by the JCPOA.

The cancellation of these resolutions and associated sanctions will mean that Iran’s extensive history of defying the international community will be wiped clean. Iran has long insisted that the sanctions were illegal; the agreement to erase the record and consequences of Iran’s violations will serve only to reinforce Iran’s narrative that it was the aggrieved party, not the villain.

After the nuclear deal was announced, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted, “Nuclear industry R&D is an issue they spent years trying to stop it, but now they’ve written & signed it. It only means #IRAN’s authority.”

Even if Iran is limited to 5,000 centrifuges now, after ten years there will be no more limits on its enrichment program.

By cancelling sanctions and removing penalties, without constraining Iran’s enrichment program, the Security Council has signaled to Iran that crime does pay.

[Photo: ali javid / YouTube ]