Pompeo Expected to Seek Reimposing Iran Sanctions in Thursday Meeting With UN Chief

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Mike Pompeo speaks during a press conference with Iraq's Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein at the State Department on August 19, 2020.
Mike Pompeo speaks during a press conference with Iraq's Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein at the State Department on August 19, 2020. Credit: MANDEL NGAN / AFP

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is set to meet with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Thursday, when he is expected to inform him that Washington was invoking the "snapback" mechanism to reimpose sanctions on Iran as part of the deal on Tehran's nuclear program.

Snapback allows Security Council participants to demand the restoration of all UN sanctions in a complicated procedure that cannot be blocked by a veto.

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Last week, the U.S. lost its long-shot bid in the UN Security Council to indefinitely extend an international arms embargo on Iran. Israel condemned the council's rejection of the proposal, although senior officials say the government ultimately prefers a scenario in which the nuclear deal collapses entirely.

Alone among the UN Security Council's 15 members, the U.S. argues that as an original participant in the nuclear deal with Iran, it retains the right to demand restoration of sanctions. The others, which still support the deal, maintain the U.S. lost that standing when U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the accord in 2018, but it isn’t clear if they can stop the invocation of snapback through technical procedural means.

UN officials expect Russia and China to be at the forefront of the challenge to the U.S. effort's legality, which would then kick the issue over to Guterres's office.

 “I don’t have any announcements on timing about what we’re going to do, but the president’s made clear we’re going to do it soon and we will,” Pompeo told reporters on Wednesday, brushing aside concerns that other nations may not recognize the American move.

“This will be a fully valid enforceable Security Council resolution and we have every expectation that it will be enforced just like every other Security Council resolution that is in place,” he said. ”We will be in full compliance with that and we have every expectation that every country in the world will live up to its obligations.”

The U.S. argument is highly controversial. It has been ridiculed by the Chinese, Russians and Europeans, and not even the biggest Iran hawks in the United States all agree with it.

Former Trump national security adviser John Bolton, no slouch when it comes to anti-Iran positions, has long said that the U.S. lost its snapback standing when it withdrew from the deal and that moving ahead is not worth the damage it could do to U.S. veto power in the council.

In a stunningly rare moment of agreement, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif praised Bolton this week. “At least he is consistent — a trait notably absent in this U.S. administration,” Zarif tweeted.

Thus, the administration’s insistence on moving ahead has set the stage for a contentious dispute and the possibility that the U.S. call would simply be ignored by other UN members. That outcome would potentially call into question the Security Council’s ability to enforce its own legally binding decisions.

Under the terms of Security Council Resolution 2231, which enshrined the nuclear deal and to which the U.S. remains a party, the invocation of snapback for significant Iranian noncompliance starts a 30-day clock during which the council must vote affirmatively to continue the sanctions relief that Iran was given in return for curbs on its nuclear program.

Pompeo is expected to present evidence of significant noncompliance, likely the latest reports of the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, on Thursday. Iran does not deny violating some terms of the deal but says its actions have been forced by the U.S. withdrawal and the Trump administration’s reimposition of U.S. sanctions.

As envisioned by the Obama administration, which led the negotiations that culminated in the nuclear deal, the United States or any other permanent member of the council could use its veto to block the continuation of sanctions relief. In theory, that would result in the reimposition of sanctions.

But whether any other council member will respond to the U.S. move by introducing a resolution to extend sanctions relief is an open question. Some UN experts believe the others will just ignore the Americans, leaving the Trump administration in the possible position of having to introduce its own resolution to extend sanctions relief for the sole purpose of vetoing it.

“We don’t know if any country will do that,” said Richard Gowan, the UN director of the International Crisis Group. “If the general view of the council is that the U.S. doesn’t have standing, it’s quite possible that no council member will even engage at that level.”

“The U.S. could actually table a resolution of its own and then veto it, just to show that it is going through the procedural motions, although that would look a little bit farcical,” Gowan said.

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