How Russia Could Make or Break the Iran Deal

Washington wants to make sure the world will reimpose sanctions the second Tehran violates the terms of its agreement. But will Moscow surrender its treasured U.N. veto?

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during a press conference in his country residence of Novo-Ogaryova outside Moscow on March 4, 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 4 said that deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych had no political future but asserted he was legally still head of state. AFP PHOTO / RIA NOVOSTI PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE - POOL / ALEXEY NIKOLSKY        (Photo credit should read ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during a press conference in his country residence of Novo-Ogaryova outside Moscow on March 4, 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 4 said that deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych had no political future but asserted he was legally still head of state. AFP PHOTO / RIA NOVOSTI PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE - POOL / ALEXEY NIKOLSKY (Photo credit should read ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

There are few things in international diplomacy that Russia values more than its U.N. Security Council veto. It has wielded it to limit Western action from Georgia to Syria to Ukraine. But the success of the historic nuclear talks with Iran may hinge on Moscow’s willingness to voluntarily yield that power.

The United States and its European partners are pressing a proposal that would curtail Russia’s ability to block the U.N. Security Council’s ability to reimpose — or “snap back” — its sanctions on Iran if it breaches an accord placing strict limits on its ability to develop nuclear power, according to diplomats and analysts.

The Islamic Republic is being battered by three sets of sanctions: one package imposed by Washington, one by Europe, and one by the U.N. Security Council. The United States and European governments have multiple ways of reimposing, or snapping back, their own sanctions in the event of an Iranian breach. But it would be far more difficult for the United States and its partners to secure Russian and Chinese support for reimposing the separate multilateral U.N. measures.

Retaining the ability to restore the U.N. sanctions has emerged as a precondition for an American agreement to suspend, and eventually lift, a spate of measures that restrict governments’ business dealings with Tehran and demand the suspension of Iran’s uranium-enrichment sanctions. “We will not support a snap-back mechanism or an agreement that includes a snap-back mechanism that leaves us vulnerable” to Iranian cheating, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, assured House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) at a June 16 hearing. “We will retain the ability to snap back multilateral sanctions architecture back in place without Russian or Chinese support.”

Power did not detail how the administration could ensure that suspended U.N. sanctions could be reimposed without the agreement of the two veto-wielding powers. But diplomats and specialists familiar with U.S. thinking said Washington has for months been exploring an option that would shift decision-making outside the U.N. Security Council.

The plan would work like this. The pending nuclear deal with Tehran would include language establishing a joint commission comprising representatives from the key powers: Britain, China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, and the United States. It would also grant each of those countries, under a “mandatory review” provision, the authority to raise a concern about a breach in the nuclear deal before the commission. The entire system would be created in a legally binding Chapter VII resolution of the U.N. Security Council.

If the United States detected an Iranian violation — let’s say U.S. intelligence exposed a secret nuclear-enrichment plant — Washington could invoke a mandatory review and bring the case before the commission to either seek a commitment from Tehran to address the U.S. concern or call for a reimposition of sanctions. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would likely be called upon to assess whether a breach had occurred. But the commission would make the decision, by a majority vote, automatically triggering the reimposition of suspended U.N. sanctions.

The balance of power would rest with the commission’s Western members, which would have four votes, while China, Russia, and Iran would combine for only three. If Russia still wanted to try to shield Tehran from renewed sanctions, they could still resort to introducing a U.N. Security Council resolution reversing the commission’s decision. But the United States would have the power to veto that measure.

“The idea seems to reverse the logic of the veto right,” said Simond de Galbert, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who was a member of France’s nuclear negotiating team until last summer. “The veto would only be used at the U.N. Security Council, likely by Western powers, to oppose a draft resolution preventing automatic sanctions snapback.”

The proposal would potentially cross a traditional Russian red line: Moscow has long opposed any decision that takes the decision to penalize a country out of the hands of the U.N. Security Council, where Russia can block. And some observers remain dubious that Russia, let alone China or Iran, would ever accept such a plan.

“I can’t tell you what the Russians are thinking about this, but my gut reaction is that it is very unlikely they will rescind their veto power,” said a senior Western diplomat who has been regularly briefed on the talks. “This is something they have never done. It would set in their eyes a terrible precedent.”

The Russian Embassy in Washington did not responded to a request for comment. The White House also declined to comment. “We’re not going to get into the details at this stage from here,” said Ned Price, a spokesman with the National Security Council.

The six world powers, known in diplo-speak as the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany), are seeking to conclude a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program by June 30, though many diplomats have conceded that negotiations are likely to extend into early July.

A final deal would subject Iran’s nuclear program to far greater scrutiny by international arms inspectors in exchange for the phased suspension, and ultimate lifting, of the punishing Western sanctions over the next two decades. If an accord is reached, the United States and European governments will suspend a range of financial, trade, and nuclear-related sanctions. The U.N. Security Council would then eliminate several of its own sanctions resolutions aimed at compelling Tehran to halt its nuclear program. In their place, the council would adopt a new resolution specifying Iran’s rights and obligations under the accord.

The United States and its European partners say the terms of such a resolution, which have not yet been agreed upon, would keep strict controls on Iran’s ability to purchase dual-use equipment from abroad that could be used for a nuclear weapons program as well as a civilian one. Instead, Tehran would have to go through a carefully monitored “procurement channel” that would limit what it could buy for its energy facilities. They are also seeking to extend a U.N. conventional-arms embargo, including a ban on Tehran’s purchase of supplies for its ballistic missile program. Iran is holding out for a deal that would eliminate all those measures and offer immediate greater economic relief.

Besides figuring out how to reimpose U.N. sanctions on Tehran in the event of a violation, a number of other key issues remain unresolved in the talks, according to an official from a government involved in the negotiations.

Negotiators still need to forge agreement on: the level of access Tehran will allow to non-declared military facilities, such as Parchin, where experts suspect illicit bomb testing has occurred; how Iran will account for the so-called possible military dimensions (PMD) of its nuclear program; the type of equipment, potentially including high-tech reactors, the West will offer Iran in exchange for restrictions on enrichment; the rollback of the U.N. arms embargo on Iran; and the duration of the deal itself. There is also disagreement over how much research and development Iran will be permitted to carry out on its most advanced centrifuges. “This gets very technical and political. What kind of R&D are we talking about? The devil is in the details,” said the senior Western diplomat. “We don’t want them to leap forward with highly sophisticated new centrifuges after those 10 or 15 years.”

Robert Einhorn, a sanctions expert and a former official in President Barack Obama’s administration, said a snap-back agreement “hasn’t been fully nailed down” yet, but that there is broad agreement that the reimposition of sanctions won’t be subject to a veto at the Security Council. “Administration officials are confident they can get this,” he said.

Another diplomat speaking to Foreign Policy said certain aspects of the snap-back mechanism are still under negotiation. For instance, there is some discussion about also giving the European Union a seat on the joint commission, which would grant the West an even stronger majority, even though it could also theoretically lead to a tied vote. “That’s one area still being worked out because they’re leading the negotiations but not technically part of the P5+1,” said the diplomat.

The diplomat also stressed that the joint commission will not be the only avenue available for the “snapping back” of sanctions. “There will still be ways without the commission of ensuring that the membership of the P5+1 could take an issue to the Security Council,” according to the diplomat, who declined to explain how such a provision might work. “How that will function is still on the negotiation table, [but] don’t assume that the commission is the only way to snap back sanctions.”

Hans Blix, a former head of the IAEA who oversaw weapons inspections efforts in Iraq before the U.S. invasion, said that the shift could be a hard sell in Moscow and Beijing.

“I doubt the Russians and Chinese would go for it,” he said. But if they did, he added, it would represent a “remarkable” concession by Moscow that could help unblock council deadlock.

Blix said the joint commission could prove to be a two-edged sword for Washington because the other members could theoretically unite against the United States, particularly if they disagreed with American intelligence about potential Iranian violations or didn’t want to jeopardize their future economic dealings with Tehran. Blix recalled the bitter divisions between the United States and its traditional allies, France and Germany, over their clashing assessment of the threat to the world posed by the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. “It would cut both ways,” said Blix. “I don’t think anyone should take it for granted that the United States would have the French or the German votes, or even the British vote.”

But others say this could provide an opportunity for Russian and American cooperation. Despite sharp differences between the United States and Russia on a range of issues, from Syria to Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown some willingness to find areas where the two powers could work together.

The United States and Russia, for instance, negotiated a landmark deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program. While the United States believes Syria continues to weaponize chlorine, it maintains that the bulk of Syria’s deadliest weapons, including stockpiles of sarin and VX, have been destroyed.

Ilan Goldenberg, a former U.S. State Department and Pentagon analyst with expertise on Iran, said the Russians may be showing flexibility on the snap-back provision because “they fundamentally agree it’s important to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons.” But it also provides an opportunity to find areas where they can work together because “the relationship is so bad everywhere else.”

Power and others have noted that the United States and its European partners have considerable power to snap back U.S. and European sanctions. But persuading Russia and China to reimpose lapsed sanctions would be extremely difficult. “While it’s true that we were able to get a multilateral sanctions regime through the Security Council” in the past, Power told Congress, “it does not therefore follow that in the event of a breach that we would be able to get that same resolution through a second time.”

Photo credit: ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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