Analysis: Ireland is well placed on the UN Security Council to play the role of honest broker over this most contentious issue

Ireland is committed to playing the role of facilitator in a bid to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal, something the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney, described as arguably the most politically contentious issue on the UN Security Council. According to the minister, this role will not be easy but nonetheless is an issue that Ireland can provide leadership on. 

The ambitious aspiration comes in the aftermath of US president Donald Trump's wrecking ball diplomacy which has left a toxic legacy that will be difficult to overcome.  Although president-elect Joe Biden’s victory has increased the prospects of resolving the impasse, the goal is still not without its challenges. 

In 2015, Iran concluded a long-term agreement to limit its nuclear programme. This was reached with a group of states known as the P5 plus 1, comprised of the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany. The agreement was called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and was intended to ensure that Iran’s nuclear programme would be exclusively peaceful. Iran agreed to allow international inspection of its nuclear facilities in return for lifting of economic sanctions that had a devastating effect on the Iranian economy.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week in July 2019, academic and Iran expert Azadeh Moaveni on escalating tensions over Iran's nuclear programme

Iran has consistently claimed that its nuclear programme was peaceful, but many states were sceptical, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia. Both of these have the most to lose should Iran develop nuclear weapons. Despite being close US regional allies, they remain adamantly opposed to any rapprochement with Iran. 

The Obama administration viewed the JCPOA nuclear accord as one of its major foreign policy achievements. It came as no surprise then that Trump abandoned the landmark deal in November 2018 and reinstated sanctions targeting both Iran and states that trade with it. Although the UK, Germany and France attempted to circumvent the US sanctions, these efforts had limited success. In May 2019,  Iran suspended commitments under the agreement and issued an ultimatum to the other signatories to protect it from US sanctions or it would resume production of highly enriched uranium.

Continuous efforts by the Trump administration to isolate Iran culminated in an attempt in 2020 to restore former UN sanctions. This campaign failed owing to concerted efforts by European states, working unusually closely with China and Russia, to persuade the rest of the Security Council to reject the US plan.

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From RTÉ Six One News in January 2020, Russia warns EU on potential 'escalation' over Iran nuclear deal

The challenge to resolve the current impasse has become all the more problematic since Iran announced that it had begun enriching uranium to a level far in excess of limits imposed in the 2015 nuclear accord. The International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran has already increased production of enriched uranium, which is used to make reactor fuel, but also nuclear weapons. 

The Trump administration’s Iran policy involved exerting 'maximum pressure’ on Iran by imposing harsh unilateral sanctions to force greater concessions and weaken Iran's influence. Trump’s failed strategy and unrealistic demands were seen as a diplomatic Trojan horse intended to undermine the regime in Tehran. In reality, the policy achieved little other than hardening attitudes on all sides while stoking regional tensions.

President-elect Biden has indicated his willingness to rejoin the accord, restore transatlantic relations and repair the damage to Obama's legacy, but not at any cost.  While both the US and Iran might be tempted to seek more concessions from each other, such a tactic is likely to be counter-productive. The new US administration and the Iranian regime cannot be seen to concede too much. In particular, it would be political suicide for Biden to agree to pay compensation for US sanctions. 

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland in January 2020, Steven Erlanger from the New York Times on Iran's alleged breaking of the 2015 nuclear deal

The US should indicate its willingness to comply fully with the original nuclear agreement. It was the US that withdrew unilaterally in 2018 and attempted unsuccessfully to coerce Iran into making further concessions.  This, along with unattributed acts of sabotage against Iran's nuclear facilities and the killing of a leading nuclear scientistcombined with Iran's own growing violations of the nuclear agreement restrictions, have rendered the accord moribund.

Time is critical and the upcoming Iranian elections with the prospect of an even more hardline regime taking power does not help matters. The best strategy for all parties is to seek a resolution of the current impasse based on the agreement that already exists. However, this would require Iran to reverse current policies that violate the 2015 accord and permit verification, while the US for its part would be required to lift unilateral sanctions and return to compliance. This would also allow both parties to avoid losing face, while facilitating follow-up negotiations on Iran's ballistic missile programme and its broader role in the region. The sequencing of any steps to achieve this would still remain sensitive given the atmosphere of distrust.

The JCPOA nuclear agreement remains the best available mechanism to resolve the issues while keeping Iran's nuclear programme in check. The agreement is evidence that the US and Iran can resolve their differences through diplomacy. The risk of a confrontation before Trump leaves office is ever-present as pro-Iranian militias target Americans in Iraq and the regional situation remains volatile. Israeli prime minister Netanyahu has vowed not to allow Iran produce nuclear weapons. A key issue is whether the Iranians are willing to return to a domestically unpopular deal that the US already reneged on and that never provided the economic dividends promised.

The JCPOA nuclear agreement remains the best available mechanism to resolve the issues while keeping Iran's nuclear programme in check

During its term on the Security Council, Germany was pivotal in defending the nuclear deal against a concerted US campaign to destroy it. In fact, it was one of Germany's most notable foreign policy successes while on the Security Council. 

Ireland’s programme for the duration of its term on the Council is ambitious. While Ireland does not have Germany’s political or economic clout, it is well placed as a fellow EU member state to play the role of honest broker and be part of the consensus building required to get the agreement back on track.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ