After months of a game of chicken between global powers, the moment of truth has come and the world will see who blinks first: Will the United States be able to unilaterally coerce the rest of the world to reimpose international sanctions on Iran, or will its bullying cost it the disregard and erosion of its status in the United Nations?
The latest developments don't bode well for President Donald Trump's administration, which is almost completely isolated on the issue, but the threat of blocking access to the American market can certainly influence the players.
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On Sunday, the 30 days were up from the moment the United States filed a complaint of Iranian violations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, seeking to immediately invoke the clause in the nuclear agreement known as the "snapback" mechanism, which could restore all international sanctions that were in place against Iran before the deal was signed in 2015.
This was part of the American attempts to prevent an embargo on conventional weapons sales to Iran from being lifted on October 18, and to seize momentum and have another go at bringing down the entire agreement.
In principle, according to the “snapback” clause, the filing of a complaint is meant to automatically restore sanctions unless the UN Security Council meets to extend relief measures to Iran. But the vast majority of the Security Council’s members and the countries that support the agreement argue vehemently that there is no validity to this move because the United States pulled out of the agreement in 2018. After the pullout, Iran indeed breached part of the agreement in protest. But the U.S. claims that because it is mentioned in the original Security Council Resolution 2231 on the matter, the fact that it pulled out of the agreement since then legally makes no difference to its ability to restore sanctions in its framework.
Because of this, and with the end of the 30-day period, the United States declared a unilateral resumption of sanctions early Sunday morning, and an extension of the arms embargo. However, 13 of the Security Council member states – that is, all but the U.S. and Dominican Republic – announced that there is no legal significance to this declaration. The United Kingdom, Germany, France, as well as the leading candidates to sell weapons to Iran – Russia and China – all back that stance.
The United States, for its part, is threatening to announce a series of harsh enforcement steps, in the forms of sanctions on anyone who breaks the embargo, which will make it very difficult, for example for anyone who wants to trade at the same time with the United States. Under such circumstances, for many officials and bodies, access to the U.S. market will obviously be more important than access to the dying Iranian market.
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Between the American interpretation and that of almost the entire rest of the world, stands, perplexed, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has already said he cannot take any position because of the “uncertainty” surrounding the move. But neither will he launch certain technical steps needed to support the return of sanctions until the “situation is clarified.”
The heavy pressure brought to bear by the Trump administration on Iran is meant, in the big picture, to bring it back to the negotiations table for a new agreement, which would be, according to American and Israeli officials, tighter and harsher.
The Netanyahu government, which pushed from the moment the 2015 accord was signed to bring it down completely, doesn’t really aspire to bring back the embargo on the sale of conventional weapons. Lifting it will allow Iran to purchase weapons including advanced combat aircraft, but not the missile components that are its main concern. Israel prefers the judgement day scenario where the United States acts aggressively to cancel the entire agreement, even at the cost of shattering the rules of diplomacy.
Iran, for its part, hopes to continue this uncertainty until the U.S. election in November, in the hope that a victory by Democratic candidate Joe Biden will allow the restoration of the original agreement. In this context the “Abraham Accords” for normalization between Israel and Arab countries that were inked last week in Washington are considered part of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure strategy. They are meant to convey to Iran that a broad coalition is being created in the region that crosses traditional borders and that so far has not been publicly crossed – a coalition that will remain even if Biden is elected.
According to many at the United Nations, American heavy handedness on the issue has ruined any chance at compromise, distanced from it balancing elements like Britain and increased the risk of an extreme response by Tehran. Now what is left is to discover whether this heavy handedness will turn out to be effective in some way. Because at the end of a game of chicken, as we know, all sides might lose, even if one side tries to act insanely omnipotent to get the others to give in first.