At the U.N. General Assembly, World Leaders Disagree on the Value of the Iran Nuclear Deal

September 26, 2017

Publication Type: 

  • Policy Briefs


Mana Mostatabi

The 72nd United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) concludes this week with increased uncertainty about the future of the nuclear agreement with Iran. In his address to world leaders on September 19, U.S. President Donald Trump called the agreement "an embarrassment" and "the worst and most one-sided transaction the United States has ever entered into." It appears increasingly unlikely that he will re-certify Iran’s compliance with the agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), on October 15th.

Meanwhile, leaders from the other parties to the JCPOA broadly reaffirmed their support of the agreement before the General Assembly. Among JCPOA supporters, however, a compromise position emerged that acknowledges some of the concerns raised by the U.S. administration. Most clearly articulated by French President Emmanuel Macron, this position is motivated by a desire to preserve the framework of the agreement while addressing its shortcomings like the "sunset" provisions on nuclear restrictions and the failure to constrain Iran's ballistic missile advances. In addition, a number of leaders expressed concern that if the United States backs away from the JCPOA, it could blunt efforts to negotiate with North Korea.

Below is a roundup of comments from the UNGA about the nuclear agreement, with links to the full text of these comments when available.

The Iranian Position  
Iranian officials reiterated two messages. First, that Iran has complied with the JCPOA and expects the United States to do the same; and second, that Iran is not open to re-negotiating the agreement. Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, who addressed the General Assembly on September 20, stated that Iran would “not be the first country to violate the agreement” and would "respond decisively and resolutely to its violation by any party." He continued:

"It will be a great pity if this agreement were to be destroyed by ‘rogue’ newcomers to the world of politics. By violating its international commitments, the new U.S. administration only destroys its own credibility and undermines international confidence in negotiating with it, or accepting its word or promise.”

In response to comments that the agreement could be renegotiated, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said: “if you want to have an addendum, there has to be an addendum on everything.”

Critics of the Deal 
The United States and Israel made the most critical remarks about the nuclear agreement at UNGA. In his address, President Trump said of Iran:

“We cannot let a murderous regime continue these destabilizing activities while building dangerous missiles, and we cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program. The Iran Deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into. Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it—believe me.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described his concern with the JCPOA's "sunset" provisions:

“Two years ago, I stood here and explained why the Iranian nuclear deal not only doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb, Iran’s nuclear program has what’s called a sunset clause. Let me explain what that term means: It means that in a few years, those restrictions will be automatically removed—not by a change in Iran’s behavior, not by a lessening of its terror or its aggression. They’ll just be removed by a mere change in the calendar. I warned that when that sunset comes, a dark shadow will be cast over the entire Middle East and the world, because Iran will then be free to enrich uranium on an industrial scale, placing it on the threshold of a massive arsenal of nuclear weapons.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson echoed concern about the expiry of nuclear restrictions on Iran, in a September 20 press briefing on the sidelines of the General Assembly:

“I think in particular, the agreement has this very concerning shortcoming that the President has mentioned as well, and that is the sunset clause, where one can almost set the countdown clock to when Iran can resume its nuclear weapons programs, its nuclear activities. And that’s something that the President simply finds unacceptable.”

Secretary Tillerson added that despite Iran being in “technical compliance” with the JCPOA, the deal had aspired but thus far failed to bring about regional stability, as Iran continues to develop and test ballistic missiles in defiance of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231. As to the October 15th certification deadline, Secretary Tillerson stated that the Trump administration is “carefully considering the decision of whether we find the JCPOA to continue to serve the security interests of the American people or not. We expect Iran to fulfill its commitments. We’re going to – until that time, we'll fulfill our commitments.”

Although Iran's Gulf neighbors were largely mute on the subject of the nuclear agreement, the United Arab Emirates raised concern about Iran's destabilizing role in the region. In his September 22 address to the General Assembly, Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed AI Nahyan said:

“Two years have passed since Iran's nuclear agreement, with no sign of change in its hostile behavior in the region […] instead, Iran continues to develop and conduct more ballistic missile tests in a deliberate violation of the spirit of the nuclear agreement. Therefore, we support enhancing controls on Iran's nuclear program and continued assessment of the agreement and its provisions.”

The European Front 
European officials affirmed their support of the deal, emphasizing its multilateral nature and arguing that undermining it could weaken efforts to negotiate with North Korea.

Following a ministerial meeting between the P5+1 and Iran, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini spoke to the press about the importance of keeping discussions about Iran’s role in the region separate from the nuclear agreement:

“There is no need to renegotiate parts of the agreement, because the agreement is concerning a nuclear programme and, as such, it's delivering. We all agreed on the fact that there is no violation, that the nuclear programme related aspects which is all the agreements are being fulfilled [...] There are other issues such as the crisis in Syria, the crisis in Yemen, other different issues that are geopolitical, strategic, bilateral issues. Do the United States and Iran want to have a multilateral discussion about their bilateral relations? Happy to set up a framework for that, but I don't think this is the discussion tonight […] if there are other issues, we can discuss other issues in other fora.”

President Macron of France acknowledged the concerns raised by the Trump administration, simultaneously reaffirming  France’s commitment to the JCPOA framework while recognizing a need to "supplement this agreement with work that will help control Iran’s ballistic activities, and to govern the situation after 2025, which is not covered by the 2015 agreement." 2025 is when the nuclear restrictions on Iran's uranium enrichment work begin to expire. In comments to reporters on September 20, President Macron further expressed concern about Iran’s non-nuclear ambitions:

“Is this agreement enough? No. It is not, given the evolution of the regional situation and increasing pressure that Iran is exerting on the region, and given increased activity by Iran on the ballistic level since the accord […] Tensions are on the rise, look at the activities of Hezbollah and Iran’s pressure on Syria. We need a clear framework to be able to reassure regional countries and the United States.”

German Vice Chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, insisted that “existing treaties and agreements must not be called into question”:

“The agreement is a way out of the impasse of a nuclear confrontation which would jeopardize regional security and have an impact far beyond the region. But only if all obligations are rigorously adhered to and the agreed transparency is created, can the urgently needed confidence grow. […] This is not only about Iran. This is about the credibility of the international community. For which state would refrain from developing its own nuclear programme if it turns out that negotiated agreements do not endure and confidence in agreements with the international community are not worth the paper they are written on?”

Russia and China 
During his address to the General Assembly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized the current U.S. administration’s approach to Iran and the imposition of new sanctions, saying:

“Blatant pressure, instead of diplomacy, is more and more prevailing in the arsenal of a number of Western countries. The application of unilateral sanctions, above those introduced by the U.N. Security Council, is illegitimate and undermines the collective nature of international efforts. Today, the world is watching with alarm as the U.S. imposes yet a new set of restrictions against Iran which […] threaten the realization of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that became one of the key factors of international and regional stability.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi did not mention Iran or the JCPOA during his address to the General Assembly, although he reaffirmed China’s support of the deal on the sidelines during a meeting with the P5+1 and Iran. Yi also emphasized that a U.S. withdrawal would impact the situation with North Korea.

Chinese state media echoed Yi’s sentiments, saying that the deal’s failure would result in “a heavy blow to the international nuclear non-proliferation drive, and set a bad precedent that would surely hamper the ongoing multinational efforts at finding a peaceful solution to the Korean Peninsula nuclear deadlock through negotiations.” It further underscored that reneging on the deal would “send a signal to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea that even if it was willing to talk, the US could not be trusted to honor any deal that was reached.”