Author: Vasil Ghlonti, international security expert, scholar of Oriental studies, intelligence analyst
The development of a nuclear program in the Islamic Republic of Iran attracted global attention from the very outset. The process of putting a halt to it, which started in 2005, was delayed several times, but on July 20, 2015, the UN Security Council Resolution 2231 entered into force, ratifying the agreement signed by the USA, Great Britain, China, Russia, France, Germany, and Iran. The main objective of this resolution was international control of Iran’s nuclear program and production of Iranian ballistic missiles. On October 18, 2023, the resolution expired, and along with the clauses related to the nuclear program, the sanctions imposed on Iran in the military sphere were canceled, according to which international cooperation with Iran regarding ballistic missiles and other high-tech weapons was prohibited. It is worth noting that other sanctions imposed by the International Security Council against the Islamic Republic of Iran were lifted upon the entry into force of the “Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action”, and, in October 2020, restrictions on conventional and light weapons were also removed.
In general, how effective and efficient were the sanctions imposed by the United Nations on Iran? What was the actual goal of Iran when it signed resolutions related to the nuclear program, ballistic missiles, and drones? What exactly did the UN Security Council expect from Resolution 2231? The task of our work is to answer these questions.
The UN sanctions on Iran
In 2005, Iran’s decision to renew its nuclear program significantly worsened its position in the international arena, as this issue attracted the special attention of the international community and the UN Security Council. Its members were alarmed by the fact that in a key region of the world, rich in energy resources, in a key region of the Middle East, an odious regime with an Islamic fundamentalist ideology, one which actively financed, prepared, and subsequently used such terrorist organizations as Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and others, might come into possession4 of nuclear weapons in the future. All the more so as the government of Iran entrusted the supervision of the development of the nuclear program to the main pillar of its power – the “Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps”. The fact that this paramilitary organization has been exposed for multiple violations of international law on a global scale, support/financing of terrorism, smuggling of arms and oil products, and international drug trafficking, while its high-ranking officials and related companies were under unilateral US sanctions, has always elicited a negative reaction from the world’s community. Most likely, this is what led to the adoption of 13 UN Security Council resolutions on Iran between 2006 and 2015, demanding that the Islamic Republic cease uranium enrichment and abandon the construction of a “heavy water” nuclear reactor.
Unfortunately, these resolutions failed to fulfill their function, as there was a whole range of contradictions between the participating parties. Due to this, by 2015, the issue of adopting a new, effective resolution was high on the agenda of the world’s political elites. Based on the fact that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, i.e. the “Big Six”, were behind the initiation/implementation of UN Resolution 2231 and its main component, the “Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action” (JCPOA), it can be assumed that the political elite of the world was trying to normalize relations with Iran and contain its nuclear program. Their main demand was to stop the uranium enrichment and production of ballistic missiles. However, the withdrawal of the US from this agreement in 2018 shows that its authorities suspected Iran’s neglection of its obligations. President Donald Trump called the deal “one-sided and useless” and reimposed tough sanctions on Iran. The many American politicians who disagreed with Trump’s decision and criticized it prove that certain influential political forces in the US, especially representatives of the Democratic Party, were in favor of warming relations with Iran. Against this background, the fact that Great Britain, France, and Germany also criticized Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement shows that these European states had high hopes for the JCPOA, and sought to save it by any means necessary. However, on October 17, 2023, the European Union, due to the violation of the nuclear agreement by the Iranian side, refused to cancel the sanctions against it, and unilaterally left the sanctions in force. This leads us to believe that the European political elite no longer trusts the regime of the Ayatollahs and once again intends to take under strict control Iran’s nuclear program, along with the export of drones/ballistic missiles. In addition, sanctions and fines will still apply to Iranian individuals and legal entities related to the aforementioned areas, including high-ranking officials of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. As, in the framework of the JCPOA, Great Britain, France, and Germany refused to cancel the sanctions imposed on Iran in September of this year, the Ocotber decision of the European Union was easily predictable.
In light of this, the sharp deterioration of the relations between the USA and EU countries on the one side, and Iran on the other, most likely led to the Islamic Republic supplying Russia with military unmanned aerial vehicles in the war against Ukraine and establishing a drone assembly plant in the Tatarstan city of Elabuga on the territory of the Russian Federation. This, in itself, is a violation of Resolution 2231. The extremely sharp reaction of the US to the destructive actions of the Iranian side in the aforementioned war, and its disregard of international norms, proves that the US political elite still pays great attention to the weakening of the Iranian regime. This is confirmed by the fact that in October, when UN Resolution 2231 expired, the USA, like the European Union, immediately imposed new sanctions on Iran. The main target of the sanctions imposed by the American side is Iran’s “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps” and its affiliated companies, validating the fact that the US government and special services, together with their European counterparts, perceive precisely Iran’s special services as the primary actor in developing the country’s nuclear program and ballistic missiles/drones. It is conceivable that the goal of the American side, like the members of the European Union, is to limit/control Iran’s production of ballistic missiles and drones, which points to existing coordination between the United States and the European Union on the issue of Iran.
Against the background of this reality, the Kremlin, caught in a difficult situation in the Russia-Ukraine war, is trying to use the contradictions between Iran and the West for its state interests in an attempt to make the Islamic Republic a strategic ally. It is conceivable that in order to implement its far-reaching plans and achieve that goal, Russia will actively provide assistance to Iran in the development of its nuclear program. In all likelihood, the absence of UN Security Council Resolution 2231 will contribute to the further expansion of Russian-Iranian cooperation in the military sphere, as many barriers will be removed. The statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the country also confirms the expectations of the Russian side.
According to our estimation, Iran never intended to fulfill the conditions of the mentioned 2231 agreement from the get-go, and signing it only served to gain time. In all likelihood, Iran, with Oriental cunning, has signed each new agreement since 2006 only to “rewrite” the previous agreements, the main clauses of which, related to the nuclear program and ballistic missiles, it has violated many times over. Given that the possession of nuclear weapons was very important for the Islamic Republic, as it would give it more political weight, leverage, and military power, it is conceivable that Iran continued its uranium enrichment process in secret, even after the agreement. This is confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s discovery of uranium particles enriched to 83.7% as a result of samples obtained in January 2023 at the underground, closed, and classified factory “Fordo” in Iran. It is possible that in the future, Iran will accumulate enough enriched uranium for the production of nuclear weapons. It is expected to take at least a few years until Iran develops a nuclear warhead, although the Islamic Republic’s recent advances in ballistic missile production could shorten that time considerably.
According to our assessment, the UN Security Council resolutions and international sanctions adopted to control/stop Iran’s nuclear program and ballistic missile production in 2006-2023 have only partially worked, and have certainly not achieved the desired results. Although the last resolution No. 2231, adopted by the UN Security Council on July 20, 2015, was intended to regulate the relations between the leadership of Iran and the political elite of the world, as well as to put the development of the Iranian nuclear program within the framework of international norms, the parties did not achieve their goal. In all likelihood, the resolution and the “Joint Comprehensive Action Plan” within its framework did not work due to the existence of a high degree of polarization of interests among its signatories, the frequent violation of the main clauses of the agreements signed, and the disregard of international norms by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
There is a high probability that the Iranian side did not intend to fulfill the terms of the concluded agreement from the beginning, and has simply been trying to buy itself time. This assumption is confirmed by the fact that, along with the secret process of uranium enrichment, Iran was also developing its ballistic missile programs in a clandestine manner, and doing so with some success. Further, Iran did not publicly hide its displeasure that the US, Great Britain, and Israel had nuclear weapons, demonstrating that the Iranian side never intended to give up the development of the military component of its nuclear program. In fact, the Iranian regime, despite the difficulties, at this stage seems to have withstood the various restrictions, sanctions, and even internal disturbances. The uncertain position of Russia and China, which helped the Iranian regime in different ways and weakened the effectiveness of the sanctions imposed by the West, was likely of some significance in this regard. In addition, Great Britain, the EU countries and the USA have often held different positions on the issue of Iran over recent years, which also served as grist to Iran’s mill.
Against this background, it is likely that Iran, Russia, China, and perhaps even North Korea will take advantage of the expiration of the UN Security Council Resolution 2231 and significantly expand their cooperation in the military field, especially in terms of the development of ballistic missiles and drones, which will further increase the already high political temperature in the world.