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Iran Sanctions Snapback Explained: Trump Left U.S. Isolated at UN

The UN will enter a legal whirlwind as the clock begins ticking on the automatic U.S. request to impose the snapback, a move supported by Israel but opposed by 13 of the 15 countries on the Security Council

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks from the Oval Office at the White House, Washington, March 11, 2020.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks from the Oval Office at the White House, Washington, March 11, 2020.Credit: Doug Mills/AP
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

The American effort to restore the sanctions on Iran that were imposed before Tehran signed its 2015 nuclear agreement with major world powers has now revealed the extent to which the United States has become isolated abroad over the nearly four years of Donald Trump’s term in office.

Since the effort was launched Thursday by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, no fewer than 13 of the 15 countries on the UN Security Council have already decided – with the support of the European Union and others – to oppose the proposition. In the coming weeks, a major diplomatic war is expected behind the scenes that threatens to shake up the rules of the game at the United Nations.

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The effort began with an American attempt to prevent the expiration of the embargo on the sale of conventional weapons to Iran. The embargo is due to expire on October 18, and Washington has sought to take advantage of the momentum to try again to cause the collapse of the nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as it is formally known, or JCPOA.

The embargo on conventional arms is based on UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which, following the signing of the nuclear agreement, reworked all the previous resolutions on the subject. The expiration would let Iran acquire weapons including new fighter planes and more advanced air defense systems, mainly from Russia and China. This would not include missile components, which are Israel’s main concern.

The U.S. administration, which unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear agreement in 2018, sought last week to have the Security Council extend the embargo on conventional weapons, a proposition that was defeated in the council by a large majority, with only the Dominican Republic joining the United States in supporting it. The support was reciprocated with Pompeo’s attendance at the swearing-in of the Caribbean nation’s new president, Luis Rodolfo Abinader.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to reporters, New York, August 20, 2020.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to reporters, New York, August 20, 2020.Credit: MIKE SEGAR/Reuters

Following its rout at the Security Council, the United States made good on its controversial legal threat, despite its withdrawal from the nuclear deal, to invoke the so-called snapback provision in the agreement with Iran. The provision permits the signatories to the deal to automatically reinstate the sanctions that prevailed against Iran before the JCPOA was signed, via a formal complaint that Iran has violated the agreement.

Washington claims that because the United States is mentioned in the original UN resolution, the fact that it has withdrawn from the nuclear deal isn’t relevant. But Russia, China, Britain, Germany and France have all announced that they would not accept the American legal interpretation. That position was seconded by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who said “The U.S. unilaterally ceased participation in the JCPOA,” adding that, “It cannot, therefore, be considered to be a JCPOA participant state for the purposes of possible sanctions snapback foreseen by the resolution.”

Reuters has reported that the 13 Security Council members who voted against the United States have already drafted a letter challenging the legality of Washington’s step. The Dominican Republic has not yet stated its position.

The United Nations will be entering a legal whirlwind because the clock began ticking on the automatic American request for imposition of the snapback, a 30-day period that ends at midnight on September 19, a few days before the UN General Assembly convenes – unless the Security Council extends the period of concessions to Iran. But if there is a vote to extend the period of concessions, the United States can cast a veto, meaning that in practice, the sanctions are reinstated and the rest of the nuclear deal collapses.

This complex procedure could, in a doomsday scenario, force countries opposing the step to ignore the American veto through all kinds of procedural bypass methods that in the process would undermine the status of the American veto.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a televised speech in Tehran, June 3, 2020.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a televised speech in Tehran, June 3, 2020.Credit: OFFICIAL KHAMENEI WEBSITE/Reuters

Criticism of the Trump administration over putting an American veto at risk is now being voiced on both sides of the aisle. For example, John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, who is now an adversary of the president but is considered a leading hawk on Iran policy, said it wasn’t worth the risk. He also wrote an article questioning the American stance that the United States is in the agreement to the extent that it wishes to be but not for other purposes. This doesn’t justify invoking the snapback, he wrote.

Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, tweeted that invoking the snapback would undermine the U.S. veto. She ended her post: “Dumb and Dumber.” Pompeo, on the other hand, quoted comments by Obama himself around the signing of the agreement saying that the snapback could be invoked at any time.

Amid all of this wrangling, Israel, which from the beginning hoped that the snapback would be invoked, is now trying to sell another narrative, to the effect that it’s not the American veto but the international order and the United Nations’ standing that are at stake, in part because bypassing an American veto would provide a precedent.

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