Iran’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Accidentally Tells the Truth, Part Five

This is the fifth in a series of posts on an accidentally published interview with Iran’s Abbas Araghchi, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs.  This interview was conducted by regime insiders, and was meant to be provided only to highly placed loyalists.  The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting is an outlet whose head is hand-picked by Iran’s Supreme Leader, and which is made up of political elites of proven loyalty.  The publication of this off-the-record interview provides insight into what Iran is telling its own elites about the deal and how it was crafted.

The last item from this interview to be investigated is the claim that the JCPOA’s terms remain purely voluntary for Iran, unless it should happen to formally pass its own law in its own legislature mandating compliance.  The agreement the US State Department negotiated does nothing to bind Iran.

Araghchi also noted that he believes it is not in Iran’s benefit for the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, to ratify the nuclear deal because there is a “series of voluntary actions in the JCPOA that will turn into obligations should the Majlis approves the deal.”

This claim is only partially true.  The JCPOA itself contains no binding language, but discusses Iran’s “intent” not to pursue nuclear weapons in voluntary terms.  Should the Majlis pass a law mandating that Iran obey this agreement, Iran’s government would be bound in a way that it is not now.  However, any law passed by the Majlis must be approved by the Guardian Council, which wields veto authority against any law it deems to be out of order with its interpretation of Islamic law, or with the constitution of Iran.  This body may also disqualify candidates for office if it disapproves of them:  for example, it disqualified all female candidates for office in the 2006 elections.

The constitution of Iran is somewhat unusual in that it specifies a foreign policy.  Specifically, all governments of Iran are bound to reject “all forms of domination,” and to preserve “the independence of the country in all respects.”  It further states that “[a]ny form of agreement resulting in foreign control over the natural resources, economy, army, or culture of the country, as well as other aspects of the national life, is forbidden.”

There is thus a real question about whether the Iranian parliament even has the authority to pass a law that would mandate compliance with the JCPOA.  Accepting restrictions on the nuclear weapons program, which Iran does not formally acknowledge, would appear to fall under ‘an agreement resulting in foreign control of the army.’  Accepting restrictions on nuclear enrichment for allegedly peaceful purposes would still seem to fall under an agreement resulting in foreign control of ‘the economy’ or ‘natural resources.  Uranium is one of Iran’s natural resources, and they have since the agreement was passed by the United Nations Security Council announced that they have vast uranium reserves that were allegedly only just discovered.  Presumably Iran’s government can voluntarily do whatever it wants, including going along with an agreement that it is not actually bound to obey.  Majlis ratification of the agreement as binding, however, might well be found unconstitutional by Iran’s Guardian Council.

It also might be rejected by the Supreme Leader.  As Amir Abbas Fakhravar explains, the stakes are high for Khamenei:

By approving the nuclear deal, Khamenei would be seen by his fellow revolutionaries as embracing the Islamic Republic’s implacable foe, while a majority of Obama’s own legislature repudiates the JCPOA. One would think that such a decision would shake the very ideological foundation of the 1979 Islamic Revolution to which Khamenei and his radical followers are devoted.

Iran may thus never internally accept any binding status for the JCPOA.  Nevertheless, there remains the United Nations Security Council resolution endorsing the JCPOA, which does have binding legal standing according to international law.  Security Council Resolution 2231 does contain binding language, both for Iran and for the other parties to the agreement.  It sunsets in ten years, however, so that after that time Iran will be completely unbound by any sort of formal law.  Even while it remains valid, any formally valid action against Iran will be subject to Security Council vetoes wielded by Russia and China.  All parties to the agreement, including the United States, are directed by the resolution not to pursue independent action against Iran outside of the process set up by the resolution.

If neither Khamenei nor the Majlis takes a position, the Iranians’ adherence is merely voluntary unless the Security Council elects to act to enforce its resolution.  The United States is facing a situation in which it will be bound by both the Security Council resolution and the orders of its President to obey the terms of a deal to which the Iranians do not consider themselves bound.