Undeterred by its humiliating failure to win U.N. Security Council extension of the arms embargo on Iran, the Trump administration has vowed to double down by pushing an equally unpopular snapback of pre-2016 U.N. sanctions. In the August 14 tally on the arms embargo extension, the U.S. gathered only one vote besides its own. And the Dominican Republic may have lent its support only to act as a polite host for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s August 16 visit to the Caribbean nation. Almost every other Security Council member, 11 in all, including western allies of the U.S., abstained, while China and Russia voted no.
The setback was all the more embarrassing coming after the United States drastically watered down its original resolution. The bare-bones four-paragraph measure stripped out condemnatory language and enforcement measures and simply extended the 13-year ban on importing major military systems, such as aircraft and ships, and on exporting any arms to or from Iran until decided otherwise. But any kind of extension was a clear red line for Iran. Anticipating the arms ban lift is one of the few rewards that has kept Iran in the deal despite Washington’s provocations. Extending the embargo beyond the October 18 date by which the 2015 nuclear deal required it to expire would be enough to provoke Iran into fully abandoning the deal, thereby ending it.
Indeed, killing the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, was the whole point of the exercise for the Trump administration. The president had made ending the JCPOA a repeated campaign promise in 2016 and would like to add fulfilment of that promise to his 2020 stump speech. Despite all of the obituaries written about the deal, it remains alive, albeit coma-like. While Iran over the past year steadily walked away from the enrichment limits, it continues to honor most of the deal’s verification measures and has indicated a readiness to restore the limits if the U.S. adheres to its commitments.
For a short time, it looked as though the U.S. had at least secured regional support for its plan. On August 9, Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperative Council Nayef al-Hajraf issued a statement on behalf of the entire six-nation group endorsing the extension proposal. Given the conflicts within the six-nation bloc, especially between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, it was surprising the GCC could agree on anything, much less a unified stance on a controversial matter vis-à-vis Iran. But it turned out too good to be true. Al-Hajraf issued the statement on his own without asking the six foreign ministers.
Although Pompeo castigated fellow Security Council members for failing to fall in line, he probably doesn’t care too much about the loss. Showing the U.S. standing alone against evil Iran while world wussies sit on their hands is a political image that plays well with the isolation-minded base that Pompeo, with his own presidential ambitions, hopes to inherit from Trump. More important, the administration thinks it can get the arms ban extension, and much more, by now moving on to trigger snapback of all the pre-JCPOA sanctions. Losing the arms ban resolution was just a necessary setback en route to the bigger prize.
The same overwhelming majority of Security Council members who opposed the arms ban extension, however, also opposes snapback. The snapback provision in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 that complemented the JCPOA in July 2015 was tightly written to enable any single party to the JCPOA to invoke the return of sanctions in the event of “significant non-performance of commitments.” Dominant global opinion holds that the U.S. forfeited that right when it withdrew from the deal in 2018. Washington’s claim otherwise rests on the debatable legal argument that UNSCR 2231 did not provide for the right to be removed if a party left the deal — a scenario that nobody envisioned at the time.
The way the U.S. plan works is for Ambassador Kelly Craft to notify the Council of Iran’s significant non-compliance and argue that this starts the 30-day period specified in UNSCR 2231, at the end of which sanctions will snap back unless the Council passes a new resolution to continue termination of the U.N. sanctions — which of course the U.S. would veto.
Other members will then try to block the U.S. move via various procedural tactics. The first tactic is for Indonesian Ambassador Dian Triansyah Djani, who holds the rotating Security Council Presidency in August, to conduct consultations on whether Washington has standing in this regard. He will then report the consensus view that the U.S. effort is not a valid process. Djani is well respected, and his judgment will be trusted.
The United States can be expected to persist, however. When it does, members will work to block adoption of the agenda of the meeting at which the U.S. seeks to make its notification of Iran non-compliance. Given the overwhelming opposition to its plan, the U.S. will not win the nine votes — a qualified majority — necessary to adopt the agenda. The meeting then will not take place and the 30-day period will not start. This process will have to be repeated every time Washington tries to put the matter before the Council in a proposed agenda.
In the end and regardless of what others think, the U.S. will no doubt unilaterally claim that U.N. sanctions have been snapped back. Almost everybody else will insist on the contrary. Richard Gowan, U.N. director at the International Crisis Group, called the situation “Security Council in Wonderland.”
The U.S. claim of sanctions snapback will not have any practical effect on Iran if nobody else agrees and thus does not implement them. Iran will continue to conduct what international business it can, notwithstanding extraterritorial U.S. sanctions. It will also continue to provide arms to Houthi rebels in defiance of other U.N. resolutions, and to other non-state actors. From October 18, when the ban expires, Iran will begin to buy some arms from China, Russia, and other former Soviet states, although purchases will be limited by its own budget constraints and a reluctance on the part of arms suppliers to sell systems that would upset the regional balance of power.
Rather than persisting in a resolution that was clearly bound to fail and antagonizing allies and everyone else in the process, the Unites States could have achieved its stated purpose of restricting Iran arms purchases by cutting deals directly with potential arms suppliers to limit what they supply. But stopping arms sales to Iran is not Washington’s main objective. The goal, rather, is to restore all sanctions on Iran and to thereby kill the JCPOA before a post-Trump administration could revive it.
Whether the U.S. claim of snapback has the intended effect of terminating the deal will depend on how Iran responds. Having threatened to pull out of the accord in the event of snapback, the Rouhani government will be under domestic pressure to do just that in response to the U.S. move. A far wiser course would be to agree with the vast majority of the Council that U.N. sanctions have not been restored. Iran can let the United States be the isolated party under global opprobrium and allow the deal to survive for a few more months in hopes that a new U.S. administration will come to power and restore U.S. adherence.
Meanwhile, Pompeo’s bull-in-the-china-shop approach to diplomacy will not be without impact. Creating chaos in the Security Council will diminish the body’s standing, damaging a major pillar of the post-World War II international order. The legitimacy and effectiveness of all U.N. sanctions will suffer as a result. Nations that are already inclined not to go along with U.S.-led sanctions will be able to point to the Washington’s example of ignoring Security Council consensus, “normalizing country-by-country decisions on the legitimacy of UNSC decisions,” as former State Department official Jarrett Blanc tweeted. Given that most U.N. sanctions measures have been in support of American foreign policy objectives vis-à-vis states like North Korea, Libya, and Lebanon, Pompeo will have done a great deal of damage to his own country’s national interests.
One other way to try to avoid such wastage is for concerned leaders to go over Pompeo’s head to the president. All year, France and Russia have been trying, to no avail, to arrange for a P5 summit. Russian President Vladimir Putin has now rekindled the effort, with a twist, proposing an on-line meeting of the leaders of the P5, Germany and Iran with a view to supporting UNSCR 2231. Without Pompeo pulling the strings, the thought is that Trump might be persuaded to accept a compromise he could sell as a pre-election foreign policy victory. Although unlikely to work, since Trump really does want to kill the Iran deal, it is worth a try.