Photo credit: lev radin / Shutterstock.com
Can Pompeo trap a future President Biden in Trump’s self-imposed Iran crisis?

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo does not seem confident that Donald Trump will be reelected in November. While his political consultant advises Republican senate candidates “don’t defend Trump” on his response to the coronavirus, Pompeo is spending his time pretending the U.S. is still part of the Iran nuclear deal at the United Nations in a bad faith and costly effort which may be a sneaky way to limit a future President Biden’s options for return to the agreement.

When Trump withdrew from the Iran deal in 2018, he chose not to use the so-called “snapback” measure which would restore all the U.N. sanctions suspended by the deal. John Bolton, then the national security adviser, explained that “we are not using the provisions…because we are out of the deal.”

Yet Pompeo is now saying that the U.S. is still a legal participant and so entitled to use snapback even though the administration has repeatedly touted “ceasing” its participation. State Department lawyers produced a memo with a less-than-ringing endorsement that “there is a legally available argument” to say the U.S. remains party to the deal, but which misses the point that this will be a political question for the members of the U.N. Security Council rather than a legal one.

The Trump administration claims that this is urgent because arms embargoes adopted in 2007 and 2010 will end this year unless the Security Council extends them (which Russia or China would certainly veto) or the Iran deal snapback mechanism is used.

This makes sense as a political slogan — ending the embargo seems like a dangerous step for an adversarial country like Iran — but it is largely a red herring. Iran was not a major arms importer before the embargoes, having found a less expensive set of asymmetric military tools like insurgents and terrorists. That is unlikely to change given the financial strain the country is now under, not to mention the effectiveness of its proxy alternatives. Iran may well sign some showy contracts to mark the end of the embargo, but it will not change the way it prepares for or fights war.  (If we could trick Iran into spending its money on tanks instead of terrorist groups, we would be well served.)

U.N. arms embargoes are important in supporting U.S. efforts to keep arms out of the region, but other hot spots like Yemen and Lebanon are subject to separate arms embargoes that will continue to serve the same function. There are no arms embargoes on Syria or Iraq, but neither would there be an effective way to enforce them.

The truth is the arms embargo in the Iran deal was always more a symbolic than practical concession to get Iran to agree to nuclear limits. That does not make it unimportant — symbols in politics and diplomacy matter — which explains why members of the House have called to extend the embargo through diplomatic efforts with allies and partners. Extending it through snapback would be radically different, and not nearly worth the costs and risks of doing so for a few reasons.

First, Iran might fully withdraw from the Iran deal or even the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Iran hawks might cheer, but it would just create another crisis this administration cannot manage. In any case, the Trump administration has so far failed to predict or manipulate Iranian reactions to their provocations.

Second, Pompeo might try to use snapback and fail. It is a novel procedure uniquely designed to respond to Iran violating the deal. If the U.S. seeks to use it after withdrawing from the deal and in the face of unified opposition from even our closest allies, the U.N. Security Council may simply fail to act on it, creating a severe crisis between the U.N. and the United States.

Third, if snapback works, countries, including Russia and China, might still reject the legitimacy of the restored sanctions and proceed with arms sales to Iran in a way that would undermine the general legitimacy of U.N. embargoes.

Fourth, even our closest partners may refuse to implement the formally restored economic sanctions. As a matter of policy, the European Union enforces all U.N. Security Council sanctions, but we should expect at least an intense debate about whether to enforce sanctions resumed under a disputed snapback. European firms have already been pushed out of Iran trade by U.S. sanctions, but it would weaken a tool we rely on for crises around the world.

These scenarios describe a set of grievous risks to the U.N. system, either through a possible break with the U.S. or an erosion of legitimacy — neither of which would be easy to localize to the controversy over Iran. These risks may not mean much to the Trump administration given its ideological hostility to multilateral cooperation. If they were sincere about their concern about arms trade with Iran, the next scenario might be more worrisome.

Snapback may actually accelerate the arms sales that matter most. The embargo does not cover surface-to-air missiles, the weapons systems that can do the most damage to U.S. military superiority over Iran. Russia postponed the sale of their S300 air-defense system during nuclear deal negotiations and has so far rebuffed Iranian interest in the more advanced S400 since. But if Trump continues to play cowboy at the U.N., Moscow is more likely to reconsider. Quiet diplomacy would have a better chance of limiting these sales.

The Trump administration and Secretary Pompeo know all of this. So what’s this really about?  Joe Biden. Iran hawks have dreamed of a “sanctions wall” that would prevent any Democratic president from returning to the Iran deal, but clever European diplomacy and careful moves from Tehran have kept the deal on life support. Vice President Biden joined all of his fellow presidential candidates in campaigning on a plan to return to the deal, which is a very real possibility as the U.S. election approaches. The hawks have turned to snapback or the crisis it provokes to prevent that.  The loudest hawks of all at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy admitted as much, describing snapback as a litmus test for “supporters of the Iran nuclear deal in America and Europe” to demonstrate that we “understand great power competition is becoming the most important dynamic in the Middle East.”

Today, returning to the Iran nuclear deal would largely be a bilateral matter between the U.S. and Iran. The two countries could simply return to compliance with their obligations under the deal. After snapback, any return to the deal would require new action at the Security Council, thus allowing other parties — again, most especially Russia and China — to seek concessions.  That does not mean a Biden administration would not return. Being stuck implementing Trump’s Iran policy ad infinitum is an unattractive proposition. But the U.S. would probably need to pay a price to undo Trump’s mess.

As with all the hawks’ moves, the snapback idea will fail to achieve its purported objectives with Iran, but not before doing real damage to U.S. interests.