The nation’s top diplomat exercised what he claimed was his country’s right at the U.N. Security Council to initiate a process that reimposes international sanctions on Iran. The “snapback,” as it is called, is a mechanism tethered to the nuclear deal brokered between world powers and Iran in 2015, which the Trump administration exited on the grounds that the pact didn’t do enough to curb Iran’s regional agenda and malign activities. Last week, a U.S. proposal to extend an arms embargo on Iran set to expire this October was rebuffed by the Security Council. This week in New York, Pompeo upped the ante.
“Using a legal argument rooted in a provision of the agreement that President Trump abandoned two years ago, Pompeo met with the U.N. ambassador from Indonesia, which heads the council this month, in New York on Thursday afternoon to press his case,” reported my colleague Carol Morello. “If the Security Council does not pass a resolution allowing the sanctions suspended almost five years ago to stay that way, they will ‘snap back’ into place. The United States would veto any move that allows the prohibitions to remain lifted.”
Other countries, including the four other permanent members of the Security Council, were unimpressed. Russia’s envoy to the United Nations described the move as “nonexistent,” because the United States was no longer a real participant in the nuclear deal. A joint statement from France, Germany and Britain — usually America’s closest ally at the United Nations — echoed that argument, rejecting the move as incompatible with their efforts to preserve what’s left of the agreement.
The current spat brims with irony. After spending much of the Trump presidency attacking the U.N. system and unilaterally sanctioning Iran against the wishes of their allies, Pompeo and other U.S. officials are now trying to invoke the terms of the agreement they rejected to ensure that some of the constraints it put in place on the Iranian regime don’t disappear.
Even leading Iran hawks are skeptical. “It’s too cute by half to say we’re in the nuclear deal for purposes we want but not for those we don’t,” John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, wrote in the Wall Street Journal this week. He added that the gambit could undermine the United States’ veto in the Security Council.
“For the U.S., there is one point of high principle worth dying in a ditch for at the United Nations: Never impair the Security Council veto,” Bolton wrote.
“The snapback mechanism was an unprecedented and powerful innovation in the JCPOA,” tweeted James Acton, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, using the official acronym for the nuclear deal. “If invoked by a state that says it has withdrawn, it will never be accepted in any international agreement ever again.”
What happens next is unclear. The Trump administration has technically set the clock for 30 days before snapback, but other countries may seek procedural methods to stall the effort. Both the United States and its adversaries on the matter — in this instance, most of the Security Council — will probably cast themselves as upholders of multilateralism and U.N. obligations. Governments elsewhere may want to wait until the U.S. presidential election in November before taking decisive steps.
“In the end … this is more a political fight than a legal one,” wrote Ellie Geranmayeh and Elisa Catalano Ewers in Foreign Policy. “The political case — which seems to be most favored by European countries — is that the United States lacks the legitimacy to resort to snapback since it is primarily motivated by a desire to sabotage the multilateral agreement after spending the last two years undermining its foundations.”
They added that the “main actor that will decide the fate of the nuclear deal after snapback sanctions is Iran itself. Iran has already acted in response to the U.S. maximum pressure campaign, from increasing enrichment levels and exceeding other caps placed on its nuclear program, to attacking U.S. forces based in Iraq and threatening to exit the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.”
European governments, in particular, face a tricky balancing act between reckoning with the Trump administration’s desire to further punish Iran and keeping Tehran committed to what’s left of the hollowed-out 2015 agreement.
Pompeo, meanwhile, didn’t help matters with his customary demagoguery Thursday. He scoffed at Russian and Chinese opposition to the U.S. move as part of those countries’ “disinformation tactics” and then wheeled on the major European powers. “No country but the United States has had the courage and conviction to put forward a resolution,” he said. “Instead, they chose to side with the ayatollahs.”
“Previous administrations have had heated arguments w/ Germany and France but I don’t think a Secretary of State has ever leveled such a charge against the UK before,” tweeted Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution. “The special relationship lies in tatters under Trump.”
Some analysts see this showdown as the logical extension of the administration’s wrecking-ball diplomacy.
“The administration’s intent has never been in doubt,” noted the International Crisis Group in a lengthy report. “If its goal in fact was to minimise the impact of permissible weapons sales and purchases on Middle East security, then Washington had more realistic options than the open-ended extension it sought and the resort to a UN Security Council snapback mechanism it now threatens. Yet, rather than engaging in delicate diplomacy, in close consultation with allies but also reaching out to rivals who have an important say in the outcome, the Trump administration approached the problem with maximal demands and minimal willingness to compromise.”