If the United Nations Security Council’s arms embargo against the Islamic Republic of Iran is renewed, the leaders of the signatories to Iran’s nuclear deal – namely China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany; but more recently, excluding the US, after it left the deal – know the “grave consequences for them [that] would follow and what a historical defeat they would suffer,” announced [Persian link] President Rouhani in a meeting of his cabinet on Wednesday, May 6.
“If the arms embargo is to return one day, under any name with any statement or mechanism, our response is the same as I wrote in the last paragraph of a letter to the leaders of the five [signatories to the nuclear agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA], and they know well what our answer will be that day,” said Rouhani. “I emphasized in the final paragraph that if you do this, we will do that, and they know what grave consequences would befall them if such a mistake was made.”
Security Council’s resolution 2231, which endorsed the original nuclear deal between western powers and Iran, was unanimously adopted by its members on July 20, 2015 and is due to expire this November. But in late April of this year, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US would seek to renew the arms embargo. Since then, Iran has been warning against such a possibility and Islamic Republic officials have issued a few threats; but Rouhani’s letters to the leaders of the remaining partners in the JCPOA shows that tensions over this issue may yet explode into a full-blown crisis.
Neither Iran nor the recipients of Rouhani letter have disclosed the full text but, considering the behavioral pattern of the Islamic Republic in the past 40 years, one can surmise the “grave consequences” to which Rouhani was referring.
1. Reducing Cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
One of the quickest options at the disposal of the Islamic Republic is to reduce its cooperation with the IAEA — something that Iran has already done in the past. Currently, based on the JCPOA, the IAEA continuously and closely monitors Iran’s nuclear activities. Besides periodic inspections of nuclear sites, if there is suspicion that unannounced nuclear activities are taking place at other sites, IAEA inspectors can immediately ask to inspect of that site and can take samples from the area to ascertain whether activities beyond the bounds of the agreement has occurred.
Additional protocols to bilateral agreements between Iran and the IAEA allow inspectors to seek information about possible nuclear activities at undeclared sites and to determine whether radioactive particles are to be found at such sites.
This permission, granted to the IAEA by Iran, is based on the JCPOA and Iran has no legal obligation to continue it. As a result, the moment that the Islamic Republic feels like it, it can reduce the IAEA’s access to visit suspected nuclear sites. Iran is aware of the sensitivity of western countries to this issue and can use it to pressure these countries – probably Rouhani’s letter referred to this as well.
2. Enriching Uranium to a High Degree of Concentration
Iran has the technology to enrich uranium to 20 percent, but as part of the nuclear deal, it agreed to stop enriching uranium to this level.
The higher concentration to which uranium is enriched means the higher is the possibility that it can be used to make nuclear weapons. After the US left the JCPOA, Iran decided to research building engines powered by nuclear fuel. Such engines generally need uranium that is enriched at a level higher than 50 percent. It is obvious that this level of enrichment would sound the alarm for western countries, and this is why it is very likely Rouhani is using it as threat in case the arms embargo on Iran is renewed.
3. Threat to Exit the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)
This is the most serious threat that the Islamic Republic can make. Up to now, Iran has always denied that it seeks to build nuclear weapons, because it is a signatory to the treaty that bans the development of such weapons.
If a government leaves the NPT treaty it can only mean that it wants to produce nuclear weapons. This is what North Korea did around 20 years ago; shortly afterwards, it tested its own atomic bomb. In the past two decades, the Islamic Republic has officially threatened at least twice to leave the treaty.
The first occasion was when the IAEA’s board of governors wanted to refer Iran’s case to UN Security Council. The second time was when US President Donald Trump was considering whether to pull the US out of the nuclear treaty with Iran. In both cases, Iran’s threat remained just that, a threat, and was not carried out; given the experience of North Korea, pulling out of the treaty could have led to a full-fledged nuclear crisis.
The “grave consequences” that Rouhani says will follow if an arms embargo on Iran is renewed cannot be anything beyond these three choices. And if the arms embargo is renewed, it is possible that the Islamic Republic will also resort to its usual responses, such as arresting more dual-nationals, or ratcheting-up regional tensions. But such threats are not appropriate subjects for letters to foreign leaders and cannot be presented as the “official response” of the Islamic Republic; and yet, as the past shows, they are carried out much sooner than Iran’s “official” threats.
Iran Negated 14 International Obligations in One Year, 19 March 2020
The 12 Demands of Pompeo's New Iran Strategy, 21 May 2018
The JCPOA: A Missed Opportunity, 17 May 2018