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Trump Wants Snapback Sanctions to Kill the Iran Nuclear Deal. Britain, France, and Germany Can Save It.

The United States just lost the showdown at the United Nations Security Council over extending the terms of the arms embargo against Iran. The U.S. government was left embarrassingly isolated, winning just one other vote for its proposed resolution (from the Dominican Republic), while Russia and China voted against and 11 other nations abstained.

But the Trump administration is not deterred: In response to the vote, President Donald Trump threatened that “we’ll be doing a snapback”—a reference to reimposing sanctions suspended under the 2015 nuclear deal from which the United States withdrew in 2018.

In the end, however, this is more a political fight than a legal one. 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. 

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.

But the calculations of decision-makers in Tehran will be influenced by the political and practical realities that follow snapback sanctions. And here, the response from the remaining parties to the nuclear deal—France, the United Kingdom, Germany, China, and Russia—will be critical. These countries remain committed to keeping the deal on life support—at least until the U.S. presidential election in November.

Seizing on its failure to extend the arms embargo, the United States now claims it can start the clock on a 30-day notification period, after which U.N. sanctions removed against Iran by the nuclear deal are reinstated. This notification will be timed deliberately to end before October—when the arms embargo is set to expire, and also when Russia takes over presidency of the U.N. Security Council: a time when Washington could face more procedural hurdles.

What is likely to follow snapback is a messy scene at the U.N. in which council members will broadly fall into three groups.

First, the United States will seek to build support for its case—primarily through political and economic pressure—so that by the end of the 30-day notice period some U.N. member states agree to implement sanctions. The Trump administration will likely use the threat of U.S. secondary sanctions, as it has done successfully over the last 18 months, if governments don’t move to enforce snapback sanctions.

Even if most governments around the world disagree that the United States has any authority to impose snapback sanctions, some countries may be forced to side with Washington given the threat that the United States could turn its economic pressure against them.

The second group will be led by China and Russia, both of which have already started to push back. Not only will this group refuse to implement the U.N. sanctions that the U.S. government claims should be reimposed, but they likely will throw obstacles into the mix, such as blocking the reinstitution of appropriate U.N. committees that will oversee the implementation of such sanctions. This group may also see it as advantageous to seek a determination by the International Court of Justice on the legal question over the U.S. claim.

The third grouping will be led by the France, Britain, and Germany, who remain united in the belief that the deal should be preserved to the greatest extent possible. In a statement in June, the three governments already emphasized that they would not support unilateral snapback by the United States. But it is unclear if this will translate into active opposition—and their approach will certainly not include the obstructionist moves that Russia and China may make.

This bloc will look to stall decisions to take the steps necessary to implement the U.N. sanctions. This is a delicate undertaking, as European countries are not in the habit of blatantly ignoring the binding framework of some of the U.N.’s directives, and will want to balance their actions against the risk of eroding the security council’s credibility further. But they will also take advantage of whatever procedural avenues are in place to delay full enforcement of the sanctions, buying time to urge Iranian restraint in response to the U.S. moves.

Countries such as India, South Korea, and Japan are likely to favor this approach. These governments may even go so far as to send a significant political signal to Iran and back a joint statement by most of the security council members vowing not to recognize unilateral U.S. snapback sanctions.

As part of this approach, the 27 member states of the European Union could embark on a prolonged consultation process over how and if to implement snapback sanctions. The separate EU-level sanctions targeting Iran’s nuclear program are unlikely to be reimposed so long as Iran takes a measured approach to its nuclear activities.

Reimposing EU sanctions against Iran will entail a series of steps, the first of which requires France, Britain, and Germany, together with the EU High Representative, to make a recommendation to the EU Council. The return of EU sanctions would then require unanimity among member states, a goal which will take time to achieve in a context where Washington is largely viewed as sabotaging the nuclear deal.

In this process, the EU should seek to preserve as much space as possible to salvage the deal and avoid the reimposition of nuclear-focused sanctions against Iran—at least until the outcome of the U.S. election is clear. The U.K., in the run-up to Brexit, may well lean toward a similar position rather than tying itself too closely to an administration in Washington that may be on its way out.

Until now, the remaining parties to the nuclear deal have managed to preserve the deal’s architecture despite its hollowing out. The aim has been to stumble along until the U.S. election to see if a new opening is possible to resuscitate the agreement with a possible Biden administration in January.

While a Trump win could spell the end of the deal and further dim the prospects of diplomacy between the United States and Iran, the two sides could come to a new understanding over Iran’s nuclear program at some point during the second term that is premised on the original deal. Judging by the pace of the Trump administration’s nuclear diplomacy with North Korea, this will be a Herculean process with no certain outcome.

In Tehran, there will be some sort of immediate response to the snapback—most likely involving further expansion of its nuclear activities. However, Iran may decide to extend its strategic patience a few weeks longer until the U.S. election. A legal battle by Russia and China against snapback, combined with non-implementation of U.N. sanctions by a large number of countries and continued hints from the Biden camp that Washington would re-enter the nuclear deal could provide the Rouhani administration with enough face-saving to stall the most extreme responses available to Iran.

But with Iranian elections coming in the first half of 2021, there will be great domestic pressure from more hardline forces to take assertive action, particularly on the nuclear program, to give Iran more leverage in any future talks with Washington.

If Iran takes more extreme steps on its nuclear activities, such as a major increase in its enrichment levels or reducing access to international monitors, it will make it nearly impossible for the Britain and the EU to remain committed to the deal in the short term. There are also factors outside Iranian and U.S. control that could have an impact, such as a potential uptick in Israeli attacks against Iranian nuclear targets.

Over the course of the Trump administration, Europe and Iran have managed to avert the collapse of the nuclear deal. Having come so far, and just 11 weeks away from the U.S. election, they will need to work hard to prevent the total collapse of the agreement. Even if Biden—who has vowed to re-enter the deal if Iran returns to compliance—is elected, the remaining parties will need to continue the hard slog to preserve it until January.

Those opposed to the nuclear deal with Iran may see the last two months of a Trump administration as a window to pursue a scorched-earth policy toward Iran’s nuclear program. That leaves Britain and Europe with the job of holding what remains of the deal together, for as long as they can.

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