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The Trump administration’s fantasy about snapping back sanctions on Iran

The Trump administration's snapback fiasco will weaken future nonproliferation agreements and damage U.S. power on the U.N. Security Council.

Analysis | Washington Politics

The Trump administration’s obsession with Iran degenerated some time ago into aimless hostility that has yielded nothing but negative results. With a track record of well over two years, the Trump policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran has resulted in increased, not decreased, Iranian nuclear activity. The policy has resulted in increased, not decreased, aggressive Iranian actions in the Middle East, including attacks on neighboring states’ oil facilities that Iran never had attempted before the U.S. administration’s attempt to destroy Iran’s own oil trade. The policy has increased, not decreased, the political power of hardliners in Tehran.

Amid all that counterproductivity, it is the United States, not Iran, that has become ever more isolated — at the United Nations, in other diplomatic discussions, and in world opinion.

Where the administration has gone beyond negative results and isolation and into fantasyland has been with its most recent anti-Iran ploy, which is its attempt to invoke the “snapback” provision of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231. That resolution, adopted unanimously in 2015, is the Council’s blessing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the multilateral agreement that limited Iran’s nuclear program and closed all possible paths to a possible Iranian nuclear weapon. 

Snapback is an ingenious bit of diplomatic engineering designed to reassure everyone that if Iran were to violate the JCPOA, prior international sanctions against it would be quickly re-imposed, without needing any arduous new negotiations and without being blocked by, say, an Iran-friendly Russia. Under the snapback provision, if any participant in the JCPOA declares Iran to be in violation, then sanctions would be automatically re-imposed 30 days later unless the Security Council kept sanctions suspended with a new resolution — which, of course, the United States or any other permanent member of the Council could veto.

What makes the U.S. move ludicrous in the eyes of most of the rest of the world is that the Trump administration is attempting to use a power reserved for participants in the JCPOA even though in 2018 it withdrew — loudly, emphatically, and unequivocally — from participation in the agreement.  Accordingly, 13 of the other 14 members of the Security Council (the Dominican Republic has stayed silent) have explicitly rejected the notion that the United States has any standing to invoke snapback.

The U.S. move is further out of order because it was the Trump administration, not Iran, that violated the agreement and did so wholesale, completely reneging on the U.S. obligations regarding sanctions relief. (Iran’s later incremental exceeding of agreed limits on enriched uranium, which it began a year after the U.S. reneging, is not even technically a violation of the JCPOA, which explicitly relieves Iran of its obligations if other parties do not live up to theirs.)

Now, in a further flight from reality, the administration is talking as if U.N. sanctions have been reimposed, even though they have not. (The 30-day waiting period after the Trump administration claimed to invoke snapback ended within the past week.) As U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has stated, it is up to the Security Council to interpret its own resolutions, and the overwhelming majority of the Council has determined that there is no snapback.

Of course, the Trump administration will do whatever it wants regarding U.S. sanctions. It already had sanctioned just about everything Iranian-related it can think of. It also has aggressively used secondary sanctions to discourage other countries from doing business with Iran. Thus there is not much more the administration can do unilaterally, apart from intensifying the aggressiveness of the secondary sanctions.

The charade becomes more of a worry if the administration were to start taking physical actions such as intercepting Iran-bound shipments at sea. Under the current circumstances, such a move would be state-sponsored piracy, as well as risking escalation to wider military conflict.

The administration’s rhetoric about “enforcing” U.N. sanctions is as fanciful as its other rhetoric on this matter. No one has given it the authority to enforce what it says it is enforcing, and the United States itself is currently the biggest violator of the relevant Security Council resolutions.

This entire escapade is part of the Trump administration’s effort to destroy the JCPOA, which Trump never liked because it was Barack Obama’s biggest foreign policy achievement. Probably a hope underlying the administration’s latest tactic is to provoke Iran into renouncing the agreement or taking some other action that would effectively kill it. That would be bad enough regarding the cause of nuclear nonproliferation, but also worth considering is the damage the administration’s tactics are inflicting on the United States’s own diplomatic tools and options.

A snapback-type device probably is dead as an option for any future agreements with Iran, and perhaps with other states on other topics. It is hard to imagine Iran or the other JCPOA parties signing up to a repeat of this kind of diplomatic engineering given the Trump administration’s attempted abuse of the device in Resolution 2231. This consequence will make it more difficult to construct arms control or other agreements that provide sufficient confidence that violators will be punished.

One also needs to consider broader damage to the power and standing of the United States as a permanent member of the Security Council. A sure sign of the craziness of what the administration has attempted regarding snapback is that even former national security adviser John Bolton, anti-Iran uber-hawk though he is, thinks the administration’s ploy was a bad idea. Bolton’s main stated concern is to protect the U.S. veto.

The U.S. power to veto Security Council resolutions is a key ingredient of snapback, but the significance of the veto power ultimately rests more broadly on the significance of, and respect for, any of the Council’s resolutions. By flouting the will of the Council and going off in its own fanciful way on matters involving Iran, the administration is damaging that significance and respect.

Notwithstanding the Trump administration’s disdain for international organizations and multilateralism, its attempt to invoke the snapback provision of Resolution 2231 is tacit testimony to how useful those disdained institutions can be, and specifically useful to the United States. The administration is destroying that usefulness.                

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo meets with Dominican Republic UNSC Special Envoy Ambassador Jose Singer at the United Nations in New York, New York, on August 20, 2020. [State Department photo by Ron Przysucha]
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