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July 2, 2020

Weekly Round-Up: Sec. Pompeo Isolated at UNSC & “Incident” at Natanz Nuclear Facility

This week, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held a virtual session to discuss the UN Secretary General’s most recent report on the implementation of Resolution 2231. Also, three fires and explosions in Iran – two at sensitive nuclear or military sites – have set the country on edge. Please see our breakdown and analysis below: 

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo Isolated at Security Council on Iran 

  • Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif and Sec. Pompeo Address UNSC, Preview Snapback Fight

    • On June 30th, the UNSC convened a virtual session to discuss the Secretary General’s most recent report on the implementation of UNSC Resolution 2231, which codifies the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that the Trump Administration withdrew from in May 2018. While these sessions generally host each country’s respective envoys to the UN, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif attended and each gave their remarks on the report as well as growing tensions concerning the pending expiration of the UN Arms Embargo on Iran.
    • The Secretary General’s new report found that several arms and arms-related material seized by the United States in international waters and examined by the Secretariat “may have been transferred in a manner inconsistent with Resolution 2231.” The report outlines evidence it received from the U.S. that purportedly showed Iran providing weapons to the Houthi insurgency in Yemen and noted that munitions used in the attack on Saudi oil fields in August 2019 may have been of “Iranian origin.”
    • In his remarks, Sec. Pompeo said that “the Council must reject extortion diplomacy” and that “renewing the embargo will exert more pressure on Tehran to start to behave like a normal nation.” The U.S. is currently attempting to extend the Arms Embargo on Iran, but has said that if their efforts fail they will attempt to assert a convoluted legal reading of UNSC resolution 2231 and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to snap back all U.N. sanctions on Iran, including the Arms Embargo.
    • Sec. Pompeo went on to say that “if you fail to act, Iran will be free to purchase Russian-made fighter jets that can strike up to a 3,000-kilometer radius, putting cities like Riyadh, New Delhi, Rome, and Warsaw in Iranian crosshairs.” Many observers have noted that for Iran to reach some of these cities in new aircraft, they would be unable to return to Iran. He doubled down on his remarks, despite the cold reception at the UNSC, in a press briefing the next day.
    • In a harsh rebuttal, the Iranian Foreign Minister strongly rebuked the findings of the Secretary General report and said that “the international community in general and the U.N. Security Council in particular are facing an important decision: Do we maintain respect of the rule of law, or do we return to the law of the jungle by surrendering to the whims of an outlaw bully?”
    • He went on to say “malign U.S. unilateralism has intently assaulted international cooperation” and that the UNSC’s “complacency” has been complicit to “U.S. recklessness.” Also, in reference to a recent IAEA report condemning Iran for denying access to two nuclear sites, Zarif said that “resuscitating 17-year-old allegations with no proliferation risk—which were investigated and permanently closed by the IAEA Board of Governors in 2015—will certainly not serve the Agency.” The IAEA, notably, reserved the right to reopen its investigation if new evidence was brought to light.
    • Sec. Pompeo’s pleas to the UNSC seemed to fall on deaf ears, with both traditional allies and adversaries voicing their concerns with the U.S. snapback strategy, the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, and their unilateral imposition of sanctions on Iran.
    • Representatives of Britain, France and Germany voiced unease at both the expiration of the embargo and the American approach, particularly the snapback, which they flatly opposed. The German envoy to the U.N. called the JCPOA a “diplomatic masterpiece” in his remarks, said the U.S. violated international law by abrogating the JCPOA and associated himself with the Chinese diplomat’s remarks that the U.S. has no legal standing to snap back sanctions. The French ambassador echoed his counterpart, saying in reference to the nuclear deal that, “there is as yet no serious alternative to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and its disappearance would improve neither the regional situation nor the security of our populations.”
    • The U.K.’s representative sympathized with the “continued impact [U.S. withdrawal] has had on Iran and on the Iranian people.” However, he took a harder line on the Secretary General report’s findings, stating “we are deeply concerned by Iran’s development of advanced technologies” and the roles they play in “supporting Iran’s military ballistic missile program.”
    • Niger, which will chair the UNSC in September, also rebuked the U.S. for both its withdrawal from the JCPOA and its continued imposition of crippling sanctions during the coronavirus pandemic. According to UN experts, the U.S. argument concerning whether it has “participant status” in the JCPOA may partially depend on who is the chair of the UNSC when the administration seeks to snap back all sanctions. Niger was seen to be the most pliable chair in the lead up to the expiration of the arms embargo in October.
    • China’s envoy also came out in support of the JCPOA and rejected calls to extend the Arms Embargo on Iran. He said in his remarks that Iran’s gradual violation of the nuclear deal was a result of the U.S. abrogation of the deal, saying that, “the root cause of current crises is the US removal from the JCPOA and unilateral sanctions against Iran.” Similarly, Russia lambasted the U.S. for its unilateralism, going as far as to compare U.S. sanctions on Iran to the killing of George Floyd, saying they were akin to “putting a knee to one’s neck.”
    • With its isolation at the UNSC concerning the JCPOA and snap back sanctions evident, the U.S. looked toward those outside of the Council and who have generally been supportive of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign. On the same day Sec. Pompeo addressed the UNSC, June 30th, U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. At the meeting, Netanyahu said, “I believe it’s time to implement snapback sanctions. I don’t think we can afford to wait. We should not wait for Iran to start its breakout to a nuclear weapon, because then it will be too late for sanctions.”
    • Brian Hook also traveled to Saudi Arabia on June 29th and held a joint press conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. In reference to the arms embargo, Jubeir argued that, “despite the embargo, Iran seeks to provide weapons to terrorist groups, so what will happen if the embargo is lifted? Iran will become more ferocious and aggressive…We urge the international community to extend the embargo on selling arms to Iran and on Iran’s ability to sell arms to the world.”
    • The same day, the U.S. and Bahrain, another Persian Gulf state largely supportive of ‘maximum pressure,’ issued a joint statement stating, “the United States and Bahrain call upon the United Nations Security Council to extend the arms embargo on Iran before it expires.”

  • Key Takeaways

    • The UNSC meeting this week was one of the starkest examples of how isolated the United States is on the international stage. Pompeo’s remarks were, in some shape or form, rebuked by every single member of the UNSC. It’s difficult to imagine a colder response at the UNSC for a U.S. Secretary of State in recent memory or the U.S. as ostracized as it is on issues concerning Iran.
    • The U.S. tried to balance its isolation on the international stage by relying on GCC states and Israel, who have largely supported maximum pressure throughout the last three years, often to their own detriment. The policy has forced Iran to escalate its nuclear program, act more aggressively in the region, and helped consolidate power in the hands of the Supreme Leader and his hardline allies. Maximum pressure has not only been an abject failure for U.S. standing in the world, but has done tremendous harm to Iran and prospects of reconciliation in the future.

“Incident” at Natanz On Thursday Morning & Explosion at a Tehran Clinic

  • Both Occur A Week After Explosion Near Parchin Military Base

    • According to Iranian state media, early in the morning on July 2nd, a fire broke out at Natanz nuclear enrichment facility in Iran. Natanz is Iran’s largest uranium enrichment facility and is among the sites now monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency under Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
    • The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran sought to downplay the fire, calling it an “incident” that only affected an under-construction “industrial shed,” spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said. He insisted that the incident did not damage nuclear material, and that “firefighters and aid was dispatched to the location” and the incident was “deactivated.”
    • A picture was released of the incident, showing a charred building with some debris seemingly blown off the original structure.  In an audio interview with Iranian state TV, Kamalvandi said “there are physical and financial damages and we are investigating to assess. Furthermore, there has been no interruption in the work of the enrichment site. Thank God, the site is continuing its work as before.”
    • While government officials attempted to downplay the incident, BBC Persian journalists seem to have received a statement from a group calling themselves “Homeland Panthers” that say they are an “underground opposition within Iran’s security apparatus.” The BBC has yet to authenticate the statement and whether the group exists. In addition, according to a comment by a former Iranian official made to Reuters, “considering that this so-called incident happened just a few days after the explosion near the Parchin military base, the possibility of sabotage cannot be ruled out.”
    • Also, on June 30th in the evening, Sina At’har Medical Clinic located in Shariati Street of Tehran caught fire, followed by a massive explosion. According to Iran’s Emergency Medical Services, 19 people were killed and 14 others were injured in the incident. Videos of the event on Twitter showed a billowing fire and an explosion that rocked the whole city.
    • In a message on Wednesday, Rouhani expressed his deep regret at the “bitter and tragic” incident at the facility. He also ordered the authorities to launch an immediate probe to ascertain the causes of the incident accurately and expertly. Hamidreza Goudarzi, deputy Tehran governor, said in comments concerning the explosion that a leak from medical gas tanks in the building caused the fire. Iranian State media were allowed into the hospital, showing charred operating rooms and authorities still investigating the incident.
    • The incident at Natanz and the clinic explosion occurred a week after another explosion rocked the Iranian capital near the Parchin military complex, which is one of Iran’s most prominent military bases and weapons manufacturing locations. In a statement on Iranian State TV, the Defense Ministry’s Spokesman Brig. Gen. Davoud Abdi, said the blast was caused by an explosion in an industrial gas tank that leaked in a civilian area of Parchin. However, satellite images released this week contradicted the Iranian government’s official statement on the location of the blast, instead indicating it occurred closer to a missile production facility near the base.

  • Key Takeaways

    • The new images and the history of the Parchin military facility perpetuates questions of whether the incident was an accident or sabotage. Israel, which has conducted covert operations in the past to undermine Iran’s military or nuclear capabilities, has long suggested that the site was used in Iran’s pre-2003 illicit weapons program. While Tehran denies these claims, there is significant evidence to back the allegations. Another explosion that damaged the base in 2014 was also plagued with suspicion of sabotage.
    • The Natanz facility has its own history that raises concerns that the most recent incident could be connected to foreign or domestic saboteurs. The infamous Stuxnet cyberattack, conducted by U.S. and Israeli intelligence, was considered the first digital weapon” and targeted Natanz. It set back work at the facility and set a precedent for the now escalating cyber-war between the U.S., Israel and Iran.
    • While speculation of sabotage is rife, there is no ironclad evidence pointing to either domestic or foreign saboteurs. The sensitivity of the sites involved will add fuel to concerns the U.S. and its allies may be increasing their ‘maximum pressure’ campaign through covert means. Moreover, the international community was only made aware of the full scope of the Stuxnet attack months after it occurred.
    • Iran often responds to incidents it deems as sabotage from foreign adversaries, adopting a tit for tat approach. It will be important in the coming months, in the lead up to the expiration of the UN arms embargo and U.S. election, to closely watch how these events develop as a single spark could still send the U.S. and Iran headlong into war. 

 

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