President Donald Trump confirmed on Wednesday that the United States will ask the U.N. Security Council to restore all sanctions against Iran that were lifted as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was scheduled to formally file the “snapback” complaint with the United Nations on Thursday, but it was categorically rejected by Security Council members China and Russia before the paperwork was even delivered.
“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. 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,” Pompeo said in advance of his scheduled meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in New York.
The debate over Trump’s “snapback” demand is likely to prove very uncomfortable for the United Nations and everyone involved in the JCPOA. Trump argues that the snapback provision was built into the basic code of the JCPOA, and Pompeo is expected to provide evidence that the return of sanctions is warranted by Iran’s misbehavior.
China, Russia, and like-minded critics argue that, however the snapback provision was meant to work, Trump gave up the right to invoke it by withdrawing the United States from the JCPOA in 2018.
“He’s not triggering a snapback. Snapback can be triggered by a country that is a participant of the JCPOA, which the U.S. is not,” Russian ambassador to the United Nations Vassily Nebenzia told reporters on Thursday.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi similarly insisted the U.S. “has no right to demand the Security Council to activate the rapid reinstatement of sanctions mechanism” because Trump withdrew from the JCPOA. The Iranian regime submitted a letter making the same argument to the Security Council on Thursday.
This argument is not nearly as open-and-shut as China, Russia, Iran, and their allies suggest. As Richard Goldberg of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies pointed out, the legal language of the U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) that implemented the nuclear deal say nothing about its founding signatories losing their right to invoke snapback if their status as participants in the agreement changes. The resolution is considered binding on all U.N. member states, and while the U.S. withdrew from the JCPOA, it has never stopped complying with the relevant U.N. resolution:
The term “JCPOA participant” is defined by UNSCR 2231, which includes no provision for altering that definition based on the future behavior or activities of the defined parties. Therefore, the United States remains a “JCPOA participant State” in perpetuity, as defined by UNSCR 2231. The only way to change that legal reality would be to pass an amendment in the form of a new Security Council resolution, which would be subject to a U.S. veto.
Goldberg noted the Security Council resolution gives any party the right to claim Iran is not in full compliance with the nuclear deal, Iran clearly is not in compliance – it made a point of violating the terms of the deal in a fit of rage over U.S. sanctions and insufficient European efforts to work around them — the only expressly stated restriction on sanctions snapback is that it must be invoked before 2025, and any changes to the snapback rules would have to be implemented with a new Security Council resolution, which the U.S. would surely veto.
“Whether the administration of former President Barack Obama carefully negotiated the wording of UNSCR 2231 to protect a U.S. snapback right in perpetuity, or the Trump administration took advantage of a glaring oversight, the outcome is the same. The resolution, a document legally independent of the Iran deal itself, gives the United States the right to trigger the snapback if Iran breaches its commitments,” Goldberg wrote in an August 15 analysis for Foreign Policy.
As Pompeo’s comments indicated, the actual process involves the United States filing a properly constituted complaint with the U.N. Security Council, and sanctions snapping back automatically unless the Security Council passes a resolution to keep sanctions waived within 30 days. The U.S. has veto power on the Security Council, so it could conceivably veto any resolution that would keep the sanctions waived.
This possibility is why skeptical observers of the Trump administration worry that the snapback debate could become an existential crisis for the United Nations, an outcome skeptical observers of the U.N. are not uncomfortable with.
State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus on Wednesday described last week’s unsuccessful vote to extend the arms embargo against Iran as an “inexcusable failure” by the U.N. Security Council to rein in “the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism and anti-Semitism.” Failure to extend the arms embargo clearly put a great deal of momentum behind the sanctions snapback proposal, but on the other hand, Trump and Pompeo may find themselves calling for moral clarity from a Security Council that has little to offer.
Pompeo said in a Fox News interview on Wednesday that sanctions against Iran were “temporarily paused because of the ridiculous nuclear deal, and the world will be a safer place” when they return.
“The Iranians won’t have the chance to have Russian air-defense systems, Chinese tanks, all the things that pose risk and instability in the Middle East. The Gulf states are all excited about – Israel is excited about it. It’ll reduce their risk and it’ll make Americans safer too,” he said.
Pompeo said European diplomats have “privately” told him they wanted to extend the arms embargo against Iran, but their national leadership seems determined to make any concessions to Iran necessary for the “holy grail of the JCPOA.”
“They are just wedded to this crazy nuclear deal,” he sighed, expressing some hope that the sanctions snapback could shatter the illusion of the nuclear deal once and for all… and, if not, Pompeo said the U.S. will move aggressively with sanctions against Iran on its own.
Pompeo released a video on Thursday that previewed the Trump administration’s likely response if the U.N. fails to implement the sanctions snapback:
The prior administration left no doubt that the U.S. has the ability to snap back sanctions on Iran. That's what we intend to do. As President @realDonaldTrump said, we will not continue down a path whose predictable end is more violence, terror, and a nuclear armed Iran. pic.twitter.com/0rrOt8qoO1
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) August 20, 2020
As the compilation of Obama administration quotes in the video suggests, if the snapback doesn’t work, Trump and his team will argue the JCPOA was an even bigger disaster and Obama’s sales team was incredibly dishonest when they touted its failsafe measures.
Obama administration apologists will be reduced to arguing, as Richard Goldberg implied at Foreign Policy, that Trump is cleverly taking advantage of a provision they didn’t realize they had placed in the U.N. Security Council resolutions, which they forgot are legally independent of the entirely political JCPOA.