Senators Misrepresent U.N. Resolutions On Iran In Push For More Sanctions

Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Bob Corker (R-TN) on Sunday misrepresented a series of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions on Iran in order to justify their push for more sanctions on the Islamic Republic. The senators argue that the nuclear agreement reached last month between the P5+1 and Iran does not go far enough because it allows the Islamic Republic to enrich uranium to low levels, which they claim violates past U.N. resolutions that say Iran is not allowed to enrich. However, no U.N. resolution has said that Iran is not allowed to enrich uranium, only that it temporarily “suspend” its uranium enrichment program while negotiations take place.

The Obama administration has urged Congress against passing any new sanctions now, particularly seeing that doing so would violate the terms of the agreement reached in Geneva last month. But a number of senators want to press ahead with more sanctions anyway.

“I think creating a sanctions regime that is an insurance policy and also creates leverage for us is incredibly important,” Menendez said on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, adding that he is “concerned” that the first phase deal with Iran violates U.N. resolutions. “We’ve already ceded away from U.N. Security Council resolutions that say no enrichment,” he said, adding, “the Security Council resolutions call for ceasing enrichment.”

Corker echoed Menendez later in the same segment. “[T]o me that’s a baseline that the U.N. Security Council has agreed to, I think, six times,” he said. “So as long as [Iran] can enrich, it seems to me that we are violating the very standards that we set in place in the first place.”

Corker went on, criticizing the Obama administration for “allowing [Iran to] do the things that the world community through the U.N. Security Council has already said they cannot do.”

What these senators fail to note, however, is that the P5+1 is not only comprised of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, but it is also actually empowered by the U.N. in these negotiations with Iran, so it’s unclear how a U.N.-mandated negotiating team would be violating or undermining its own resolutions.

Moreover, the United Nations has never said Iran “cannot” enrich uranium nor, for that matter, has the U.N. said it can. As the Arms Control Association (ACA) has noted, the UNSC “has adopted six resolutions as part of international efforts to address Iran’s nuclear program” with the “central demand” being “that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment program, as well as undertake several confidence-building measures.” The key term is “suspend,” as the first resolution, passed on August 31, 2006 states:

1. Calls upon Iran without further delay to take the steps required by the IAEA Board of Governors in its resolution GOV/2006/14, which are essential to build confidence in the exclusively peaceful purpose of its nuclear programme and to resolve outstanding questions,

2. Demands, in this context, that Iran shall suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development, to be verified by the IAEA

Nonproliferation experts criticized the senators’ contention that the recent nuclear deal, or perhaps a future agreement allowing Iran some enrichment capabilities, in some way violates previous U.N. security council resolutions.

“Senator Menendez is wrong,” Jeffrey Lewis, of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and blogger at Arms Control Wonk, told ThinkProgress in an email. Lewis noted that the UNSC has called on Iran to suspend its enrichment (or a “full and sustained suspension”) as a confidence building measure in a negotiation process that will eventually guarantee that Iran’s program is for peaceful purposes.

“The documents are carefully worded to avoid prejudging the outcome of any negotiation — they neither state that Iran’s suspension must be permanent nor promise Iran that it will eventually be allowed to enrich,” Lewis said, adding that, contrary to Menendez’s claim, the agreement in Geneva “has not ‘ceded away’ anything.”

“Some claim the first-phase agreement does not fulfill the U.N. Security Council’s earlier demands dating back to 2006 for Iran to ‘suspend’ uranium enrichment,” said Daryl Kimball, the ACA’s Executive Director, in an email to ThinkProgress. “The Nov. 24 deal does not suspend all Iranian enrichment activity, but it is important to recall that the purpose of the demand for suspension of uranium enrichment by Iran under existing U.N. Security Council resolutions is to prevent Iran from accumulating more LEU [low enriched uranium] until it restores confidence in the peaceful nature of its nuclear program — not to permanently cease all uranium enrichment activities.”

Kimball said that first phase deal essentially accomplishes what the previous U.N. resolutions sought to achieve by capping the amount of low-enriched uranium Iran can produce. “It goes further,” he added, “by requiring Iran to neutralize its 20 percent stockpiles and to cease all enrichment to 20 percent levels while a comprehensive agreement that further limits Iran’s enrichment capacity below current levels is negotiated.”

“Senator Menendez is moving the goal posts,” Lewis said. “The danger of misrepresenting the contents of the various resolutions is that it hands a readymade talking point to hardliners in Iran who are arguing that the United States is acting in bad faith.”

Any Senate action on new Iran sanctions won’t take place at least until next week after the Thanksgiving recess and it’s unclear how Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) wants to proceed. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs committee and co-sponsor of the sanctions legislation some senators want to take up, said last week that Congress should delay any new sanctions to allow negotiations with Iran to take place. “[S]ince they are negotiating, I don’t think it would be terrible if the Senate respected that and kept the sanctions ready to go if needed. I don’t think it would be unreasonable for the Senate to do that,” he said.