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UNSC and sanctions: a balanced role

The E3 +3 countries[1] and Iran, on 14 June 2015, powered through the diplomatic impasse on Iran’s nuclear programme and signed the landmark Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The JCPOA allows Iran to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes in accordance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty, while curtailing its ability to develop nuclear weapons.

The JCPOA covered only sanctions imposed by UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. But the European Union and the U.S. had also imposed unilateral sanctions against Iran. In the spirit of the JCPOA, these too are being dismantled.

Sanctions have become an important tool of state diplomacy in the post-Cold War era. Though considered a relatively passive way of dealing with recalcitrant states, sanctions can have devastating consequences for the local population, on a scale similar to an armed attack. On the other hand, countries must indeed be able to take pre-emptive measures against modern military technology. What, then, is the middle ground that can protect the citizens of both sides?

The sanctions against Iran were debilitating, and impacted the country’s nuclear energy, oil and petroleum, banking, finance, aviation, and other sectors. The U.S. sanctions were the most far-reaching, including penalties on foreign companies that invested more than $20 million[2] in Iran’s petroleum sector; Iran’s state-owned or state-affiliated banks were prevented from using the U.S.’s financial system even indirectly, limiting the amount of funds that could be remitted or transferred to and by Iranian entities. The sanctions even included restrictions on the business that certain non-U.S. companies could have with Iran.

The sanctions purportedly targeted the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. The Guards rose to prominence after the 1979 revolution to protect Iran from internal and external enemies and eventually positioned themselves at the helm of major industries, including Iran’s nuclear programme. But this removed all industry competition, and introduced Guards-dominated monopolies, market distortion, and higher prices at the expense of consumers.

Since sanctions were imposed, low growth, high unemployment, 20% inflation[3], widening income inequality, energy shortages, and a falling stock market have characterised the Iranian economy.

The humanitarian impact of sanctions was evident in Iraq too in the 1990s: a lack of basic goods and services, over 1 million malnourished children, and a 70% prevalence of anaemia among women[4]. Similarly, in 2013, 50% of the Iranians surveyed by Gallup reported that within the preceding 12 months they could not afford food, shelter, or housing; 34% said that their standard of living had deteriorated[5]. Life-saving western medication became unavailable and locally produced medication became expensive.

When Israel attacked Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 to arrest Iraq’s nuclear capability, 11 people were killed[6]. The UNSC condemned this attack. However, despite having a larger humanitarian impact, the sanctions against Iran have not been condemned, even though they were applied for the same reason as the attack on Osirak: to deter the development of nuclear weapons.

Sanctions were imposed against Iran despite a lack of concrete evidence. Iran has consistently denied developing a nuclear bomb. The International Atomic Energy Agency, after years of investigation, did not have evidence of an Iranian nuclear bomb. But the agency still concluded that it could not be sure there were no undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.

This, however, does not imply that there should be no preventive action at all. “Nuclear hedging” or developing a nuclear weapon that stops just short of actual weaponisation (thereby staying within the confines of international law), is a risk against which pre-emptive action may be required.

An equal threat is that the nuclear material may reach terrorist organisations like the Islamic State. Under Muammar Gaddafi, Libya was rumoured to have been developing a nuclear bomb. Given the present situation in Libya, a nuclear arsenal in the hands of any of the warring factions would be catastrophic. In such a context, preventive action, including sanctions, was indeed required.

Unlike sanctions, under international law force as “self-defence” can only be used if a threat is reasonably perceived to be imminent. Without such a threat, there can be no right to pre-emptive self-defence. Going by these guidelines, no state could have attacked Iran without UN approval, since there was no imminent threat. Sanctions, thus, was the preferred route.

Separately, in December 2011, the UN General Assembly reaffirmed on the 1970 Declaration on Friendly Relations, which urges states to refrain from unilateral economic and trade sanctions that are not in accordance with international law or the UN Charter. The Doha Mandate at the 13th UNCTAD session in April 2012 echoed this principle.

But then should force be used instead of sanctions? In 2004, a UN High-level Panel of Experts addressed the issue of “not imminent but… real (risks)” like a state “with (an) allegedly hostile intent of nuclear weapons-making capability”[7] and stated that such unilateral pre-emptive self-defence does not exist. However, recognising that in some cases pre-emptive strikes may be needed, the panel said that such action must be sanctioned by the UNSC case-specifically.

This is a practical view that can be extended to sanctions as well. As a multistate body, the UN can decide on sanctions in a more balanced manner, since different states are likely to be concerned with different facets of the sanctions. The UNSC has the option of amending sanctions or voting against them, acting as a mediating factor, and helping reach the middle ground.

Kunal Nathwani was an intern at Gateway House. Kunal graduated from University College, London (UCL) with an LL.B. He then completed his Legal Practice Course (LPC) from BPP and is currently working at the London office of international law firm, Simmons & Simmons.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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[1] – European Union, “E3/EU +3 nuclear negotiations with Iran”, 17 January 2014. <http://eeas.europa.eu/statements/docs/2013/131219_02_en.pdf>

[2] – Solingen, Etel, Sanctions, Statecraft, and Nuclear Proliferation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pg 213

[3] – ibid, pg 79

[4] – ibid, pg 68

[5] – Crabtree, Steve, “Half of Iranians Lack Adequate Money for Food, Shelter”, Gallup, 1 July 2015. <http://www.gallup.com/poll/163295/half-iranians-lack-adequate-money-food-shelter.aspx>.

[6] – Guzman, Timothy A. “Iran Nuclear Talks: Remembering the Israeli Attack on Iraq’s Peaceful Nuclear Reactor Osirak. Will History Repeat Itself?”, Global Research, 17 November 2013. <http://www.globalresearch.ca/iran-nuclear-talks-remembering-the-israeli-attack-on-iraqs-peaceful-nuclear-reactor-osirak-will-history-repeat-itself/5358415>.

[7] – United Nations High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, UN Doc. A/59/565, paragraphs 188-190