Following the withdrawal of the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) and the re-imposition of comprehensive US sanctions, the Iranian leadership announced in May 2019 that it would gradually withdraw from its obligations under the agreement. Iran has enriched larger quantities of uranium, increased the enrichment level, stepped up the development of advanced centrifuges and re-started uranium enrichment at the Fordow subterranean facility. Iran has increasingly called the object and purpose of the JCPoA into question with its actions.
The other remaining JCPoA participants, particularly the E3 (Germany, France and the UK), have attempted to persuade Iran to fully comply with its obligations once again at many meetings and talks – without success to date. Back in November 2019, the E3 Foreign Ministers therefore officially announced that they were prepared to use all mechanisms envisaged in the agreement in order to preserve it – including the Dispute Resolution Mechanism set out in Article 36 of the JCPoA.
Following Iran’s announcement in January 2020 that it intended to abandon the final remaining major restrictions to the uranium enrichment, the E3 decided, after intensive discussions, to trigger the Dispute Resolution Mechanism provided for in the agreement. Foreign Minister Maas emphasised that this step was not easy for the E3:
We could no longer leave the increasing Iranian violations of the nuclear agreement unanswered. Our goal is clear: we want to preserve the agreement and reach a diplomatic solution within its framework. We will tackle this together with all partners to the deal.
What is the Dispute Resolution Mechanism and how does it work?
Article 36 of the JCPoA states that, in the event of conflicts between the participants, for example in the case of suspected non‑compliance with the obligations under the JCPoA, what is known as a Dispute Resolution Mechanism may be triggered. In this instance, all JCPoA participants would endeavour to achieve a resolution to the conflict in intensive consultations for an initial period of 15 days at the level of senior officials, and then for a further 15 days at ministerial level. If those involved agree by consensus that longer consultations are required, then this period may be extended. Moreover, there is also the option to refer the complaint to the Advisory Board, which is a panel of external experts. It is therefore not possible to tell in advance how long a procedure will take as this depends on how events actually pan out.
If no solution to the satisfaction of the participants can be found in the course of the Dispute Resolution Mechanism and one of the complaining participants considers the issue to constitute significant non‑performance, then that participant could treat the unresolved issue as grounds to cease performing its commitments under the JCPoA in whole or in part or refer the dispute to the UN Security Council.
Only a referral to the Security Council could trigger what is known as the “snap-back” mechanism. After the expiry of a 30‑day period, the old comprehensive sanctions against Iran, which were suspended on the basis of the JCPoA and Resolution 2231 (2015), would then be re‑imposed, unless the Security Council decides otherwise.
Are the end of the JCPoA and the re-imposition of sanctions imminent?
The Dispute Resolution Mechanism provided for in the JCPoA is not the same thing as the snapback mechanism in the Security Council.
The E3 want to use the Dispute Resolution Mechanism to preserve the JCPoA and to ensure its full implementation. They want, working together with China and Russia, to work out viable solutions with Iran. In a joint statement, the E3 Foreign Ministers reiterated the great importance that the E3 attach to the JCPoA and its preservation:
France, Germany and the United Kingdom once again express our commitment to the JCPoA and our determination to work with all participants to preserve it. We remain convinced that this landmark multilateral international agreement and its non‑proliferation benefits enhance our shared security interests and strengthen the rules-based international order.
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In signing the Vienna agreement of 14 July 2015, the E3/EU+3 countries and Iran reached consensus on a long‑term settlement of the nuclear dispute, following more than 12 years of contention. Some 18 months after the start of the implementation phase, significant progress has been made.