NEW YORK – The US formally notified the United Nations of its demand that the Security Council reinstate international sanctions against Iran in a controversial move known as “snapback” that US allies have said they oppose.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo handed the head of the UN Security Council a letter on Thursday (Aug 20) saying Iran is not complying with its obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal “despite extensive efforts and exhaustive diplomacy” by the US and other member states.
Pompeo travelled to New York for the notification, underscoring its significance to the Trump administration.
The action sets the administration on a collision course with other world powers who say the US does not have the authority to invoke the snapback provision of the multinational agreement because Trump quit it two years ago.
“Mark it down, Iran will never have a nuclear weapon,” Trump said at a White House news conference on Wednesday. “We paid a fortune for a failed concept, a failed policy that would have made it impossible to have peace in the Middle East.”
Diplomats from other nations that participated in the deal have indicated they plan to behave as though the snapback of sanctions was not really triggered and therefore requires no vote on their part.
While many nations are wary of Iran, the US has been almost completely isolated at the UN in its latest efforts to raise pressure on the Islamic Republic, abandoned by even close allies such as France and Britain.
Building a coalition may be even harder now for Trump, who is trailing in opinion polls less three months before the presidential election.
In a letter on Thursday, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called on the Security Council and the world community to reject the Trump administration’s move, the semi-official Fars News agency reported.
“The United States has no right to try and reinstate sanctions on Iran,” he said.
Russia’s envoy to the UN, Vassily Nebenzya, said in a tweet that the US has no “legal right or reason to initiate this thing.”
He said “there are provisions” in the nuclear deal that “were not exhausted yet. Of course we will challenge it.”
The US legal argument, spelled out in a document accompanying Pompeo’s letter on Thursday, hinges on the definition of the term “participant state” from UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which put the global body’s imprimatur on the nuclear accord known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action when it was agreed to in 2015.
All of the other participants in the accord that eased sanctions in return for limits on Iran’s nuclear programme – including US allies France, Germany and Britain – argue that Trump’s decision to back out of the deal in 2018 means the US is no longer a participant.
The US, argues the opposite: It says the “participant states” were fixed by resolution 2231 and leaving the deal does not change that.
“It would have been a simple task for the Council, for example, to have stated that the right to initiate snapback is available only to States considered to be ‘currently’ participating in the JCPOA or in full performance of their JCPOA commitments at the time of the initiation,” the document submitted by Pompeo says. “But it did not do so.”
A US effort last week to extend indefinitely a 13-year-old UN arms embargo on Iran was defeated in historic fashion: 11 members of the Security Council abstained, with just the Dominican Republic joining the US as China and Russia vetoed the measure.
The State Department cited that Security Council rebuke in a statement after Trump spoke on Wednesday.
“Secretary Pompeo’s notification to the Council follows its inexcusable failure last week to extend the arms embargo on the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and anti-Semitism,” the department said. It added that the snapback would extend the arms embargo by default.
Trump has long called the agreement the “worst deal ever” and has said he wants a new accord to help foster peace across the Middle East.
His administration has used increasingly tough economic and diplomatic pressure to try to convince European allies to quit the 2015 nuclear deal, saying Iran used the revenue it got from eased sanctions to finance conflicts from Syria to Yemen.
European allies supportive of the nuclear deal struggled to find a way around the US restrictions, depriving Iran of investment and causing its currency to plunge.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s government ruled out any talks in response to what it calls “blackmail.”
Under the “snapback” process in the nuclear accord, the Security Council has 30 days to vote on a resolution to continue Iran’s sanctions relief, a move the US could then veto. If such a resolution is not adopted, UN sanctions would theoretically be restored.
The US “is not in any position to ask the Security Council to snap back the sanctions,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Thursday in Beijing.
He said China “firmly opposes” unilateral sanctions and urged the US to “respect the legitimate rights and interests of all other countries.”
Pompeo vowed to hold countries like Russia and China accountable, if they refused to go along with the US declaration that the nuclear deal was void and, instead, move ahead with sales of advanced weapons to Iran once the arms embargo expires in October.
DEBATE SINCE 2015
Supporters of the agreement say it took Iran off a path towards nuclear weapons. But critics said it provided Iran with economic benefits in the short-term without any long-term guarantee the country would not eventually decide to restart its nuclear programme.
International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors repeatedly affirmed that the Iranians were abiding by the accord before the US withdrew. As Washington reimposed sanctions, Iran abandoned parts of the agreement, stockpiling enriched uranium beyond agree upon levels, saying it would reverse course if the US returned to the deal.
The dispute between the US and the rest of the permanent members of the Security Council could plunge the body into a crisis with no clear path towards a resolution.
“It will be one of the worst crises to face the UN Security Council in a generation,” said Richard Nephew, who was the lead sanctions expert for the Obama administration team that negotiated the accord.
“The council will be hopelessly divided, without any clarity on how to move forward.”