Europe must trigger snapback of UN sanctions on Iran
France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States have pursued a bifurcated Iran policy: attempting to revive an expiring nuclear deal while tolerating the Islamic Republic’s brutal repression of the Iranian people. The latest protests and civil unrest in Iran raise an uncomfortable reality for the West: A new deal will provide significant sanctions relief that will fuel the regime’s violent crackdown. Tehran’s latest demands in nuclear talks have also frustrated the powers, with the Europeans noting that the regime’s foot-dragging over reviving a weaker version of the 2015 nuclear accord raises “serious doubts as to Iran’s intentions.” For 18 months, Europe and the United States negotiated in earnest, but as the months slipped by, Tehran’s outrageous demands periodically stalled the talks and provided the regime with room to expand its nuclear program.
The West must now pivot from negotiations to pressure.
As the first step to shedding the remnants of the old deal and amassing necessary leverage to counter and roll back Tehran’s nuclear advances, Europe must trigger a “snapback” of prior UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions on Iran. That step, coupled with additional diplomatic, economic, and military pressure, would frustrate Tehran’s efforts and hasten the demise of the Islamic Republic regime.
Iran has exploited negotiations over the accord, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), to place itself at the threshold of a nuclear weapons capability. According to independent analysis of data gathered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), if Tehran decides to produce nuclear weapons, it could make weapons-grade uranium for three atomic bombs within a month, and two additional weapons within four months.
These accelerated timelines are due to Iran’s operation of faster, more advanced centrifuges, producing uranium enriched to 60 percent — Tehran’s highest level ever — and making uranium metal, a material used in nuclear weapons. At the same time, Tehran has reduced IAEA monitoring, making it more difficult for the agency to detect a breakout.
Iran has also refused to cooperate with a nearly four-year IAEA investigation into the Islamic Republic’s suspicious atomic work. Tehran’s actions are in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which supersedes its JCPOA obligations. Alarmingly, the IAEA reported last month that the agency is no longer “in a position to provide assurance that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful.”
Instead of demanding accountability for Iran’s nuclear malfeasance and NPT non-compliance, however, the E3, along with the Biden administration, have continued with diplomatic business as usual. Last June, the parties did support an IAEA Board of Governors censure resolution after Tehran failed to meet an agreed deadline to cooperate with the IAEA. Yet despite the agency’s latest dire warning, at the board’s meeting last month, the E3, the United States, and 52 countries issued only a joint statement calling for Iran’s cooperation. In other, words, Biden and the E3 backed down despite Tehran’s intransigence.
The Islamic Republic views the West’s timid response as a signal to push forward with the regime’s atomic work, while brutally quashing dissent. World powers must immediately declare the JCPOA dead and pivot — as rapidly as possible — to deterring, countering, and rolling back the Iranian regime and its nuclear weapons capabilities.
To begin, the E3 should initiate “snapback” to formally terminate UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which codified the JCPOA and suspended UN sanctions on Iran’s nuclear, missile, and military programs. The snapback would restore previous UN sanctions resolutions on Iran, including a requirement that Tehran halt uranium enrichment and come into compliance with its NPT obligations. Likewise, the resolutions prohibited Iran’s import or export of certain missiles, sensitive equipment, and materiel. The resolutions also imposed an arms embargo on Iran, which lapsed in 2020 but would be restored via snapback.
The United States exited the nuclear deal in 2018 and unsuccessfully attempted to enact a snapback in 2020. However, any one of the remaining JCPOA participants — the E3 plus Russia and China — could trigger the reimposition of UN penalties by notifying the UNSC of Iran’s significant non-performance under the deal. A complicated process prevents Tehran’s allies (Moscow and Beijing) from using their UNSC vetoes to maintain the suspension of the sanctions. The prior UN sanctions would become effective midnight on the 31st day after the original notification.
To be sure, Russia and China would refuse to implement previous UN sanctions. Thus, the E3 and United States would also need to resurrect their pre-JCPOA pressure campaign on Iran using all diplomatic, economic, and military tools at their disposal. They must sanction Russian and Chinese government entities, companies, individuals, and banks that violate the resolutions or aid Tehran’s nuclear, missile, and military programs. Reimposing UN sanctions and a coordinated European/American pressure campaign could be devastating for the Islamic Republic, whose economy is rebounding due to lax enforcement of sanctions but is still facing slow growth and inflation in addition to protests.
World powers are reluctant to declare an end to negotiations. Yet admitting failure provides an opportunity to reset Iran policy and support the people against the regime. All eyes turn to Europe to accept Iran’s “no” as the final answer.
Anthony Ruggiero is senior director of the Nonproliferation and Biodefense program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and served as National Security Council senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense in the Trump administration. Andrea Stricker is the deputy director of the program. Follow them on Twitter @NatSecAnthony and @StrickerNonpro respectively. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.