The Value of a Unified U.N. Security Council

Spencer Boyer explains the negotiations that led to important U.N. Security Council resolutions on the nuclear crises in North Korea and Iran.

The challenges and failures of the United Nations are well-documented—and frequently mentioned—but major U.N. successes often go unmentioned. Recent U.N. Security Council efforts to respond to the nuclear threats posed by North Korea and Iran are two such victories that deserve proper acknowledgement.

The Council has passed critical resolutions imposing sanctions on both North Korea and Iran during the past several months. The Council’s actions alone will not resolve the nuclear standoffs with these two countries, but they have raised the costs of Pyongyang and Tehran’s defiance.

The level of cooperation among members of the Council is itself noteworthy and should be lauded. Yet the Security Council’s work is not over. The Council must figure out how to maintain its unity in the coming months in order to successfully resolve these nuclear standoffs.

North Korea

North Korea’s nuclear test last October was the catalyst for a long-awaited Security Council agreement on a series of targeted economic sanctions on Pyongyang. Chinese diplomacy, a shift in American tactics from hard-line rhetoric to pragmatic negotiations, and the unanimity of the other five nations to the talks were crucial to reaching an agreement. But the Council resolution was essential to getting Pyongyang back to the bargaining table.

Council Resolution 1718, which passed unanimously, imposes an embargo on luxury goods, technology, and military materials to North Korea and puts a travel ban on North Korean individuals affiliated with the country’s weapons programs. It also empowers nations to inspect cargo moving in and out of North Korea; demands that nations seize the funds of individuals and entities connected with North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs; and calls for North Korea to return to the six-party talks with the United States, Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea.

North Korea agreed to return to the discussions a month after the resolution passed. Participants to the talks announced in February an agreed negotiating framework for resolving both the nuclear issue and broader regional concerns. The agreement stipulates that North Korea will seal its nuclear facility at Yongbyon and “discuss” a list of outstanding issues relating to its nuclear program—such as uranium enrichment activities—by April 14, 2007 in exchange for 50,000 tons of fuel oil.

Some criticized the sanctions as a “wrist slap,” but it was a positive development that gave Council members a common base to work from as the six-party talks resumed. The resolution also allowed the Council to publicly demonstrate to North Korea that the international community deems its behavior both unacceptable and illegal, and strengthen the negotiating hand of the other five parties to the talks. And many believe that the sanctions have had a personal impact on Kim Jong Il, who by all accounts revels in luxury goods.


The Security Council has also played a constructive role in countering Iran’s nuclear ambitions. After Iran ignored a July Council demand to suspend its uranium enrichment program, the Council unanimously approved sanctions in December. Resolution 1737 bans the supply of materials and technology that could contribute to Iran’s enrichment-related, reprocessing, or heavy water-related activities; establishes an oversight committee to investigate alleged violations of the resolution; and freezes assets of key entities and individuals related to Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

The five permanent Council members and Germany followed up the action with a meeting in February where they discussed imposing additional sanctions against Iran. A new draft resolution is currently being debated in the Council that includes a freeze on the assets of additional individuals and organizations involved in Iran’s nuclear and missile programs and a ban on Iranian arms exports.

Council sanctions alone will not force Iran to ratchet down its nuclear program. Iran remains defiant and negotiations will be required to bring about progress. But State Department spokesman Sean McCormack was correct when he stated that the December resolution “has been a very effective mechanism by which to pressure the Iranian regime.” Iran’s recent demands for an end to Council “interference” and effort to head off new sanctions is a clear indication of their bite.

As Joe Cirincione and Andy Grotto note in “Contain and Engage: A New Strategy for Resolving the Nuclear Crisis with Iran,” the sanctions “undoubtedly raise the costs of Iran’s noncompliance and hinder its efforts to acquire sensitive nuclear technology.” And given the popularity of the United Nations in Iran, these Council actions could have internal political ramifications that make it more difficult for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to claim that this is solely a battle between his country and the United States.

Finding unity

We can credit both necessity and negotiation for helping create Council unity on these issues. Council agreement on North Korea was elusive until it tested a nuclear weapon. Finding common ground became an imperative, especially for China, which saw North Korea’s actions as destabilizing in the region.

Iran’s refusal to suspend uranium enrichment is in clear defiance of international law and all but forces the Council to take further action. The only real point of contention among Council members is what action is most likely to produce a negotiated settlement without undermining the body’s authority. And in negotiations over the next round of sanctions, the United States appears to have pragmatically acceded to Russian demands to increase the pressure on Tehran incrementally.

All of the veto-wielding members of the Council have played both constructive and obstructionist roles over the past few years in dealing with these crises, and there is no doubt that working to find areas of agreement has paid dividends recently. Let us hope that this new Council cooperation continues—not only in the nuclear arena, but also with other threats to international peace and security.

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