Iran nuclear bargain unlikely to ease East-West tension at UN

Analysis: Security Council resolution on the deal should boost morale but is unlikely to thaw freeze over Syria, Ukraine

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, has promised to put forward a Security Council resolution endorsing the nuclear deal with Iran “in the coming days,” and it could go to a vote as early as next week. After the prolonged negotiations with Iran in Vienna, the U.N. business should be pretty painless. But while an easily agreed-upon resolution could give diplomats at the U.N. a morale boost, it is unlikely to ease much of the tension between China, Russia and the West at the U.N.

The Syrian crisis has severely strained relations among the permanent members of the Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S.) as Beijing and Moscow have repeatedly vetoed resolutions targeting Damascus. Western officials were infuriated last week when Russia vetoed a British resolution commemorating the 1995 Srebrenica genocide.

Russian diplomats claimed that they merely wanted to avoid stirring up old animosities in the Balkans, yet an increasingly assertive Russia sees the Security Council as a venue where it can restrain the West. Moscow’s tactics include not only vetoing resolutions it does not like, but also entangling the U.S. and Europeans in drawn-out, complex negotiations on issues like Syria that ultimately lead nowhere.

While China is less aggressive, and abstained on the Srebrenica resolution rather than joining Russia in vetoing it, it still largely follows Moscow’s lead at the U.N.

If passing an Iranian resolution should now be smooth, the details of the deal show how little the big powers trust each other to behave constructively at the U.N. 

The Vienna agreement includes clauses aimed at minimizing the Security Council’s future involvement in overseeing the deal’s implementation. The upcoming resolution will set out the terms for ending U.N. sanctions on Iran if the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verifies that Iran meets its initial commitments to limit its nuclear activities. But the U.S. and Europeans insist that these sanctions should be reactivated if Tehran cheats or backtracks — and that China and Russia should not be allowed to use blocking or delaying tactics at the U.N. to protect Iran.

To this end, the agreement sets up a special Joint Commission consisting of the permanent five Security Council members plus Germany, the EU and Iran itself to address cases of noncompliance. China and Russia will not have veto rights in this, and the commission is supposed to adjudicate on any problems in just 15 days. If this is impossible, the powers’ foreign ministers are meant to step in to handle the issue.

The Security Council would only become involved if the ministers also fail to agree on how to resolve a case of non-compliance. The Vienna agreement stipulates that the council would then “vote on a resolution to continue the sanctions lifting.”

China and Russia would most likely be on Iran’s side and vote in favor of such a resolution — while the U.S., Britain and France could veto it. If a final deal at the U.N. proved impossible in a 30-day period, the sanctions would come back into force.

On paper, this looks like a brilliant if fiendishly complex set of mechanisms to limit Moscow and Beijing’s leverage over the implementation of the agreement. The deal reverses the logic of diplomacy over the Syrian conflict, during which China and Russia have been able to wield their vetoes to limit the West’s options at the U.N. In a future crisis over Iran, the Chinese and Russians would face the prospect of vetoes from the U.S. and its European allies — creating a strong incentive for them to avoid letting problems escalate to the point where they reach the Security Council at all.

As a result, most disputes over the implementation of the Iranian deal are likely to be sorted out within the Joint Commission or at the ministerial level. The Security Council will only become involved if there is a complete diplomatic breakdown that the big powers’ foreign ministers are unable to resolve in person. By definition, this would have to be a very severe crisis indeed, signaling a major geopolitical rupture.

Such a rupture is not impossible. The ministers involved in the Iran deal — including Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s Sergey Lavrov — have done a remarkable job of keeping the process separate from their disputes over other crises, such as Syria and Ukraine. But if Russia’s relations with the West deteriorate further, it may become harder to maintain a common front over Iran. If a Republican wins next year’s U.S. presidential race, the next secretary of state might prove less willing to compromise with Tehran and its allies than Kerry has been.

For the time being, however, the U.S., Russia and the other major powers are likely to maintain a clear distinction between their cooperation over Iran and their clashes over other issues. It is possible that the new Joint Commission will prove an effective mechanism for dealing with questions over Iran, while the Security Council will remain profoundly divided over how to address other issues, including not only Syria and Ukraine but also Libya and Yemen. Having made concessions to the U.S. and Europeans over the terms of the Iranian deal, Russia could even become more assertive on some of these other crises to demonstrate its continued potency. The U.S. will most likely redouble its efforts to defend Israel from attacks at the U.N. to counter Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claims of betrayal over the Iran deal.

So while the forthcoming Security Council resolution on Iran will be a feel-good moment, it does not necessarily signal a broader thaw in big power relations inside or outside the U.N. The terms of the Vienna agreement show how suspicious the Western and non-Western permanent members of the Security Council are of one another. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Iranian deal is that the negotiators managed to come to agree anything at all despite their mutual mistrust.

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