Trump stance on JCPOA nuclear deal poses legal dilemmas for Iran

Bourse and Bazaar | Farshad Kashani: With the May 12 deadline for the issuing of key sanctions waivers as part of the Iran nuclear deal fast approaching, what could be the impact of the collapse of the 2015 agreement? While Donald Trump’s conditions for the review of the current arrangement have yet to be met and Iran’s clear rejection of any amendments to the plan, the breakdown of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) seems inevitable.

The nuclear deal is the most important multilateral agreement reached in the global nuclear non-proliferation system in the last decade. It is now at risk of collapse.  There are three options for Iran should the US withdraw from the JCPOA.

First, Iran could exit the deal immediately and continue to fulfill the obligations under NPT and to the IAEA based only on the safeguard agreements with the agency. This is seen as the worst case scenario by the EU, E3 and the IAEA.

Second, Iran could exit the deal immediately, but continue to fulfill its commitments to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) based on both safeguard agreements with the IAEA agreed as part of the JCPOA and its preceding agreement, the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA). Under these safeguards Iran has suspended enrichment of uranium to 20 percent.

Third, Iran could opt to remain  in the deal on the basis that the European Union and E3 (UK, France and Germany) will provide additional  benefits to Iran to compensate for the negative effects of US withdrawal.Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, one of the key architects of the JCPOA, has stated that as long as Iran continues to benefit from a removal of sanctions, it will remain committed to the deal, but has expressed doubts that the France, Germany and the UK will be able to guarantee Iran’s interests in the absence of the United States.

Regardless of which route Iran takes, the withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA will have a legal impact on its parties. Any possible change in the partnership or the provisions of the agreement will be reflected within the domain of international law.

The Threat of Snapback

Trump has threatened not to issue the crucial waivers that have suspended US secondary sanctions on Iran. On May 12, Iran may find itself in a position not of its own making. Despite unprecedented international monitoring and scrutiny of its nuclear program, and despite the IAEA’s approval of its commitments without the slightest deviation for military purposes, it may once again face significant economic sanctions, even over the vital sale of its oil. However, snapback of US secondary sanctions could actually preclude snapback of UN sanctions, if the deal remains intact following Trump’s withdrawal.

One of the provisions of the JCPOA, unprecedented in the 70-year history of the Security Council, is the decision-making process of the partners required to resume sanctions. According to Article 37 of the JCPOA, if the dispute resolving mechanism is unsuccessful, the UN Security Council will vote on a resolution to continue the lifting of sanctions.

In such a case, the United Nations Security Council would vote for a resolution to suspend sanctions. As described in a recent report by Stephen Mulligan, an attorney with the Congressional Research Service:

The ‘snapback’ mechanism thus places the onus on the Security Council to vote affirmatively to continue to lift its sanctions by stating that those sanctions will be implemented automatically unless the Security Council votes otherwise. As a permanent member of the Security Council, the United States would possess the power to veto any such vote and effectively force the reinstatement of the Security Council’s sanctions on Iran.

In this process, the vote of all five permanent members of the Council is critical. If one of these members does not agree with the suspension of sanctions, it alone can easily restore a series of Council sanctions under Article 41 and Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter (threats to global peace and security).

However, if the United States pulls out of the JCPOA, triggering the snapback of its secondary sanctions against Iran, it may lose the ability to use the UN sanctions snapback threat which is articulated with Article 37 under JCPOA. In other words, only parties to the Iran deal are able to trigger the UN nuclear sanctions snapback procedure. If the US withdraws from the deal, it loses the ability to trigger this mechanism.

This would be a reprieve for Iran, but there are further legal pathways that should be considered in order to prevent more damages by the US to the non-proliferation regime and international law.

Recourse to the International Court of Justice

The IAEA has verified in eleven reports that Iran has fully complied with its commitments under the nuclear agreement. On this basis, Iran feels it is facing punishment without justification.

Iran can, on the basis of Clause 2 of Article 21 of Amity, Economic Relations, and Consular Rights (1955), file a complaint with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against the United States on the basis that it has had a detrimental effect on its business and trade with other countries. However, U.S withdrawal will lead to the ultimate collapse of the system, the elimination of all nuclear sanctions and the legality of the IAEA to carry out extensive inspections of Iran’s nuclear program.

Punishing Iran with various economic sanctions, including the vital sale of its oil, may result in Iran’s withdrawal or limited implementation of its political commitments under JCPOA. Depending on whether Iran completely abandons JCPOA or suspends some of its commitments under the agreement, it means the end of the current inspections and the IAEA’s ability to continue a complete and unprecedented monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program. The result is the inability of a United Nations agency to carry out its mission.

The current situation has created a legal impediment, despite the wishes of Iran, for the IAEA and the members of its board of governors including the United Kingdom, France and Germany. According to the definition of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969, the JCPOA is not considered to be a treaty, under which definition a violation would result in a case directly taken as a complaint to the International Court of Justice.

However the IAEA is an agency authorised by the UN and if it cannot reciprocate with its obligations to a UN member state that has been in compliance with the nuclear agreement (Iran) due to the interference of a third country, the IAEA can, on the basis of Article 96 of the UN Charter, and Clause 1 of Article 65 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice, for the first time in its history, resort to the ICJ for an advisory opinion on the legal status of the JCPOA.

There is some precedent for such a request by an international organization like the IAEA. The World Health Organisation has taken a similar action on threats to the use of nuclear weapons in armed conflict, requesting a referral from the International Court of Justice. The ICJ’s response would not be legally binding but it would be a new source of international law, and may be considered by the other parties to the nuclear agreement as an official advisory about their treatment of deadlock with the United States.

The JCPOA is an improbable achievement, an agreement reached after Iran had been subjected to the harshest sanctions regime ever imposed. In political practice and in the domain of international law, the JCPOA provides a new way of resolving disputes in support of the nuclear non-proliferation regime.  the agreement collapses it would be, as in the words of Yukiya Amano, Director General of the IAEA, a “great loss for nuclear verification and for multilateralism” and in my view also for international law more generally.