As we await news of the details of the imminent nuclear deal with Iran, it might be worth discussing what the deal will mean for the legitimacy of the United Nations, and the United States, on the world scale. After all, the deal will likely show that the United States is extraordinarily unable to find ways of exerting influence and achieving its initial goals, forcing it to instead alter those goals over time. The United Nations, on the other hand, will be shown as a humanitarian body, incapable of enforcing its own dictums any time the major powers hesitate.
Before we do that, let’s recap the terms of the deal we can expect so far:
- 6,000 Iranian centrifuges will be left running, the maximum it can run for a decade.
- Some centrifuges will be allowed at an underground bunker.
- Sanctions will be lifted gradually, as Iran undergoes constant inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure compliance.
The technical details will, if the first agreement is made, be worked out by a deadline of June 30. But at any rate, the framework above proves the toothlessness of the United Nations, and the failure of the United States to get even close to what it wants.
The UN Asked For No Enrichment…
Iran is, of course, a member of the United Nations. As such, it agreed under United Nations Charter Article 25 to:
…accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council in accordance with the present Charter.
However, it has failed to do so. When the United Nations Security Council passed UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1696 (2006), calling on Iran to suspend all enrichment activities, Iran did not comply. So the UNSC passed Resolution 1737 (2006), which…reaffirmed Resolution 1696. Then when this wasn’t followed, the UNSC put out Resolution 1747 (2007), calling for…Iran to do precisely what it had said before.
This tune continued with another resolution in 2008, and another in 2010. At no point did Iran comply.
This just went to show that the Security Council, when confronted with an unruly nation it is unwilling to use force against, fails miserably to address the problem. It is toothless. What can be done to reform it, to avoid the use of force but also ensure that the UN Charter is complied with, remains unclear. What is clear is that in current form, it provides a forum only for nations to agree on things they already mostly agree on, a situation exacerbated by the permanent vetoes wielded by the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China, meaning they must all agree to get anything of substance done.
But wait, you may be saying. Iran has a right, under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that it signed, to produce nuclear energy. Iran has the right to peaceful enrichment under this treaty, so wasn’t the UN Security Council violating international law by requesting that it stop?
Not quite. The problem here is that the treaty, like all treaties, functions under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. Under that Convention’s Article 60, a breach of a treaty that is essential to its function is enough to terminate the treaty. In this case, Iran failed to comply with Article 3 of the NPT, as it failed to comply with IAEA regulations as early as November 2003.
Further, the UN Charter makes clear that the UN Security Council resolutions are more powerful and binding than the NPT’s granted right. Indeed, the UN Charter says, in Article 103, that:
In the event of a conflict between the obligations of the Members of the United Nations under the present Charter and their obligations under any other international agreement, their obligations under the present Charter shall prevail.
So now that we’ve established the toothless nature of the UN Security Council, and its failure to achieve what it wanted from the first place (reinforced by the IAEA’s head reportedly pointing outIran noncompliance again), what about the U.S?
The U.S Position is Hardly Recognizable
The U.S opening positions differ heavily from the 10-year sunset clause and the 6,000 centrifuges allowed, as well as the allowed Fordow operating plant in the underground bunker. Get this: the U.S and its allies had held the following negotiation demands:
- 2003-2008: The negotiators demand that all enrichment must be stopped. An interim freeze for negotiations may occur to talk terms. Iran refuses an interim freeze.
- October 2009: Iran must ship out its low-enriched uranium to Russia. Iran agreed, and then backed out of the deal.
- April 2012: World drops demand of halting all enrichment, calling instead for transfer of medium-enriched material to a third country and halt to enrichment at 20 percent level. Calls also made for Fordow underground research site to be closed, the site may be left open in today’s deal however.
- October 2014: U.S considers allowing 4,000 centrifuges, rather than previous offer of 1,300.
- Today: 6,000 centrifuges, Fordow still operating, medium-level enrichment continues.
With this progression, it’s not surprising that people don’t take the United States seriously anymore on the world stage. Foreign policy has been the weak point of the Obama administration even as the economy improves, and it continues to be weak even today. Given how widespread anger at the deal is, meaning how much Obama needs the deal to avoid looking foolish, it’s unsurprising that the deal will see more U.S capitulation than Iranian capitulation. If Iran ever gets the bomb, it will know from this episode that the U.S, after enacting sanctions, has nothing else in its arsenal. And if it can withstand those, which it largely has, it can simply wait for a friendly enough administration to avoid the ire of the world.
And when Saudi Arabia, or Egypt, or any other state in the region decides to ramp up nuclear activity to counter Iran, it will come as no surprise that the UN Security Council, and the United States, will be powerless to stop them. Such a hit to U.S deterrence/influence capability may not be unprecedented, but it certainly isn’t common, and it certainly is concerning at that.
Hopefully the Iran deal turns out better than expected, and U.S credibility remains intact. But don’t hold your breath for that.