Why is the UK still party to the Iran Nuclear Deal?

Think tank: The Henry Jackson Society

Author(s): Elizabeth Samson

September 27, 2023

This report from UK think tank the Henry Jackson Society looks at practical applications for the future of the JCPOA.

At the time of publication of this report, the 78th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA 78) is being held at the United Nations headquarters in New York, with the high-level General Debate proceeding from 19-29 September. This year, the Islamic Republic of Iran holds a leadership position, having been appointed in June 2023 as a Vice-President of the UNGA 78. In addition to that role, and in macabre irony, the UN also appointed Iran’s envoy, Heidar-Ali Balouji, as the Rapporteur of the Disarmament and International Security Committee of the General Assembly, charged with presenting resolutions on disarmament, global challenges and threats to peace that affect the international community. In a further stroke of wilful blindness and hypocrisy, Iran’s UN ambassador Ali Bahraini was appointed in May to the chair of the UN Human Rights Council 2023 Social Forum to be held in Geneva on 2 and 3 November, igniting anger and fury from the enlightened public.

The forum will focus on the contribution of science, technology and innovation to the promotion of human rights. The 67th General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is being held in Vienna from 25-29 September 2023 and will overlap with the UNGA 78. Iran will undoubtedly be networking and negotiating before, during and after the conference, making empty pledges of cooperation as it often does around IAEA meetings.

These examples of the acceptance of Iran, and indeed the reverence with which it is held in the community of nations, despite its well-documented human rights violations and the decades-long threat of its unabated nuclear programme, underscores the necessity of shining a strong light on Iran’s activities with the goal of demanding accountability for Iran and imposing consequences for violations of international law. This Research Brief examines the Iran Nuclear Deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as it concludes its eighth year and several provisions of the Deal are set to lapse or “sunset”; it also looks at the British Government’s prospects for achieving Iran’s compliance in light of its repeated JCPOA violations. The United States withdrew from the Deal in 2018, alleging violations, but the United Kingdom (and other State parties) remained in the Deal, drawing both praise and criticism for that decision from Members of Parliament and the public.

This report offers several reasons for the UK’s continued participation with an ultimate evaluation as to whether the decision to remain has been validated and justified. The report first provides background on the Iranian nuclear threat, the JCPOA and Iran’s many violations of the Deal. Next, Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorses the JCPOA, will be examined with respect to the “Sunset” and “Snapback” provisions and how they impact the continuation of the Deal. Other enforcement mechanisms for the Deal are explored and then compared to the snapback provision. The positions of the UK Government and members of both Houses of Parliament are examined with respect to Iran’s non-compliance and the action the Government needs to take to contain the nuclear threat.

The report then advocates the use of snapback as the UK’s best tool to demonstrate its own strength. The brief concludes with several recommendations for courses of action available to the UK and its partners and includes a call to the Government to use the full powers at its disposal to compel Iran to comply and curb further expansion of its nuclear activity with the hope of fulfilling the original purpose of the JCPOA of containing and suppressing the development of Iran’s potential nuclear weapons programme.