This year capped off a disastrous run for the United Nations Security Council and its mandate for the “maintenance of international peace and security”. The world saw Russia – a permanent member the Council – blatantly violate the UN Charter through its illegal invasion of Ukraine and purported annexation of Ukrainian territory. Now, along with Iran, Russia is deliberately violating the edicts of the UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231, which, among other restrictions, prohibits transfers of weapons and ballistic missiles to and from Iran. The other UN Security Council members must act quickly and decisively to preserve the crumbling credibility of the institution and its resolutions.
Iran has been supercharging Russia’s war efforts by sending hundreds of attack and suicide drones used to hit Ukrainian civilians, military vehicles, and energy infrastructure. The Ukrainian government quietly disclosed that Iranian military trainers were present in Ukrainian territory occupied by Russia. Now, according to reports from US and foreign intelligence services, the Iranian regime is set to deliver surface-to-surface Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar ballistic missiles with ranges up to 700 kilometers. These missiles would help refill Russia’s depleted war machine to kill even more innocent Ukrainian civilians.
The international community must recognize that Iran is now a belligerent in Russia’s war against Ukraine and should be treated diplomatically as a co-combatant with Russia. For starters, European nations could quickly cancel the dozens of incoming flights to their airports from sanctioned Iranian airlines that simultaneously are delivering drones and missiles to Moscow. But the United States and like-minded nations on the Security Council must also respond to Iran and Russia’s blatant violations of UNSCR 2231. A refresher on the resolution:
When the Iran Deal was finalized in 2015, it contained two parts: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a non-binding political agreement that described various commitments by United States, the European Union, and Iran; and UNSCR 2231 – a legally-binding resolution passed by the UN Security Council that combined and modified the previous six UN Security Council resolutions against Iran. The new, unified resolution enacted strong and permanent restrictions and sanctions against a wide range of Iranian behavior, including an arms and ballistic missile embargo as well as broad sanctions against its nuclear program. The new 2015 resolution kept several of those restrictions, but Iran was rewarded with time-limitations on each sanction – divorced from any assessments of its ongoing behavior or adherence to the UN’s restriction.
In a farcical turn of events, on October 18, 2023 – now less than a year away – Iran will become free from any UN sanctions that prohibit the sale, purchase, or transfer of ballistic missiles or drones – legalizing the destabilizing weapons transfers it is currently sending Russia.
It gets worse. On October 18, 2025, the resolution will self-destruct, ending all UN sanctions on Iran entirely – permitting Iran to legally enrich and reprocess uranium and giving the regime legal cover to advance its nuclear program dangerously close to an enrichment breakout capacity. These pending sunsets are proverbial and literal ticking time bombs.
If the Security Council continues to ignore these weapons transfers in blatant violation of UNSCR 2231, it will reinforce the message that Security Council resolutions are mere paper tigers. Those who believe in the merit of multilateral institutions should be worried too: this puts another dagger in the argument that the peace and stability can be obtained through the United Nations and its pronouncements.
The other members of the UN Security Council must take firm action in response to these violations. First, they should take advantage of the “snapback” procedure in UNSCR 2231 that would permanently return all the UN sanctions set to expire over the coming few years. This would have several practical impacts: it would return the UN’s conventional weapons ban and travel restrictions against Iran’s top terrorists that both expired in October 2020. It would stop the pending expiration next year of the ballistic missile restrictions and the nuclear sunsets in 2025.
Snapback can be initiated by any of the “participants” as defined in UNSCR 2231, which includes the United States, (even while it had ceased participation in the separate JCPOA, it was still listed as a UNSCR 2231 participant), France, Germany, the United Kingdom, European Union, Russia, China, and Iran. The snapback is a 60-day process triggered by a submission by any of these parties that other participants were not meeting their requirements in the JCPOA. Iran started publicly violating its nuclear commitments starting in May 2019 and abrogated them entirely in January 2020.
There is a clear precedent for snapback. In 2020, without the support of other Security Council members, the Trump Administration initiated the snapback mechanism, noting President Barack Obama’s pronouncement in 2015 that, “We won’t need the support of other members of the UN Security Council, America can trigger snap back on our own.”
While it may have passed legal muster in the eyes of the US government, the reality is that other nations ignored the move entirely and refused to recognize the validity of the snapback, citing that the United States had ceased participation in the JCPOA. Paris, London, and Berlin even had the temerity to criticize US efforts to curtail Iranian weapons proliferation around the world. But ultimately the power of the snapback – as of any other UN resolution – is the degree to which other nations view the legitimacy of such acts and adhere to UN pronouncements. Unfortunately, the unilateral nature of the 2020 snapback rendered it ineffective and counterproductive.
As a result of Europe’s refusal to act in the UN, Iran has been emboldened to the point it sends weapons to attack Ukraine. Iran believes they will get away with it, and they may well be right. European credibility and deterrence have been decimated – every subsequent pledge they “will not tolerate” Iranian malfeasance only grows more sadly laughable. If Europe ever wishes to be taken seriously again on the Iran file, they must act now. Paris, London, and Berlin can rectify their errors – and show their support for Ukraine – by initiating the snapback procedure at the UN immediately.
More serious and far more difficult is the prospect of removing Russia from the Security Council altogether. This can only be accomplished by amending the UN Charter, a process that requires both a two-thirds majority vote of the General Assembly and unanimous approval by the UN Security Council – where Russia is already a member. Since Russia would not agree to its own expulsion, this typically ends that conversation, though creative legal solutions have been proposed to bypass their veto.
To its credit, the international community has taken steps, though modest, to isolate Russia diplomatically. Last March, the UN Human Rights Council, led by the United States, expelled Russia, and earlier this month, Russia failed to win re-election to the International Civil Aviation Organization’s national governing council. The international community should build off this momentum and accelerate Russia’s isolation. For example, the Food and Agriculture Organization should immediately take steps to remove Russia from its membership. Russia’s chokehold on Ukrainian ports blocked grain shipments to some of the world’s most food insecure countries. Other organizations Russia should be expelled from include the World Health Organization, for Russia’s targeted attacks on Ukrainian healthcare facilities and the World Trade Organization, of which Russia has already lost its “most favored nation” status. Iran, meanwhile, should be immediately removed from the UN Commission on the Status of Women for reasons that have been made manifestly clear in the past month of nationwide protests against the regime’s violent abuse of women.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who was painfully silent in his criticism of Putin for months, has finally condemned Russia’s war on Ukraine. He should follow this up with action. This should include the removal of all Russian personnel from UN peacekeeping missions and the non-renewal of UN aviation procurement contracts. The international community should be prepared to backfill these gaps to ensure mission readiness doesn’t suffer as a result.
International institutions are only as effective as their members. The Russian and Iranian regimes are intent on undermining every value the United Nations was created to promote. If the United States and Europe will not act now, there may not be much at the UN left to save.
Gabriel Noronha is a Fellow at JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy, and Morgan Viña is Vice President of Government Affairs at JINSA.
Originally published in Iran International.