US faces opposition to demand to 'snap back' Iran sanctions

US faces opposition to demand to 'snap back' Iran sanctions
A US diplomat called on the UN to restore all sanctions against Iran.
5 min read
The UN is being called to reinstate sanctions [Getty]

The Trump administration ran into immediate opposition after its top diplomat officially informed the United Nations it is demanding the restoration of all U.N. sanctions on Iran, with allies and opponents declaring the U.S. action illegal and doomed to failure.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted Thursday that the United States has the legal right to “snap back” U.N. sanctions even though President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six major powers that was endorsed by the U.N. Security Council.

Russia and China, along with European allies Britain, France and Germany, who often disagree, are united in declaring the U.S. action “illegal” on grounds that you can’t withdraw from a deal and then use the resolution that endorsed it to re-impose sanctions.

How this dispute plays out in the weeks ahead remains to be seen, but Thursday’s U.S. move set the stage for a showdown in the United Nations that could lead to a crisis of credibility for the Security Council, its most important and powerful body.

Pompeo came to the U.N. to deliver a letter to Indonesia’s ambassador to the U.N., Dian Triansyah Djani, whose country currently holds the rotating council presidency. It cited significant Iranian violations of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, a requirement to “snap back” U.N. sanctions.

Pompeo said his message was simple: “The United States will never allow the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism to freely buy and sell planes, tanks, missiles, and other kinds of conventional weapons ... (or) to have a nuclear weapon.”

And he said U.N. sanctions will continue the arms embargo on Iran, set to expire on Oct. 18, as well as prohibit ballistic missile testing and nuclear enrichment that could lead to a nuclear weapons program — which Tehran insists it is not pursuing.

Pompeo was sharply critical of “our friends in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom” who didn’t support a U.S. resolution to indefinitely extend the arms embargo on Iran, which was resoundingly defeated a week ago.

He accused them of privately agreeing with the U.S. but lacking courage to say so publicly and proposing “no alternatives.”

“Instead they chose to side with ayatollahs,” Pompeo said. “Their actions endanger the people of Iraq, of Yemen, of Lebanon, of Syria and indeed their own citizens as well.”

Following Pompeo’s half-hour meeting, the council president began one-on-one consultations with its 14 other members on the legality of the U.S. action, council diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because discussions were private.

Under the terms of the Security Council resolution that enshrined the nuclear deal, Thursday’s notification starts a 30-day clock after which pre-2015 U.N. sanctions on Iran that were eased will be re-imposed unless a resolution specifically extending their suspension is passed. The U.S., however, would use its veto power to block any resolution extending the sanctions relief.

Pompeo said a Security Council resolution will be introduced as required, but he wouldn’t say which country would initiate it. Only the Dominican Republic supported last week's defeated U.S. resolution to extend the arms embargo.

He appeared confident the U.N. sanctions would be re-imposed in 31 days and indicated that the U.S. may impose sanctions on countries that don't enforce them.

Diplomats said the likely outcome of the council president’s consultations is that the majority of members inform him that the U.S. is not legally entitled to invoke “snap back,” and therefore they consider that “snap back” has not been triggered and the U.S. action will have no effect.

In these circumstances, the council president would not be required to introduce a resolution to extend sanctions relief, which would face a U.S. veto, the diplomats said.

The Europeans are still hoping that an agreement might be reached before the Oct. 18 expiration of the Iran arms embargo that could bridge the major differences between Russia and China, who support its lifting, and the United States, which seeks an indefinite extension, the diplomats said.

The Russians have been the most outspoken critics of the U.S. decision to invoke “snap back.”

Before Pompeo’s notification, Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the U.S. didn’t have the legal right to initiate “snap back,” and said "of course, we will challenge it.”

As soon as Pompeo delivered the letter invoking “snap back,” Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Dmitry Polyansky, tweeted: “Looks like there are 2 planets. A fictional dog-eat-dog one where US pretends it can do whatever it wants without ‘cajoling’ anyone, breach and leave deals but still benefit from them, and another one where the rest of the world lives and where intl law and diplomacy reign.”

Russia then asked for an open council meeting Friday to discuss implementation of resolution 2231 endorsing the nuclear deal, which the Trump administration rejected.

“After groundlessly claiming that they triggered #snapback our US colleagues objected to holding a SC meeting to discuss what’s happening around implementation of Resolution 2231,” Polyansky tweeted.

Looming on the horizon, and an unspoken consideration for many Security Council members in this dispute, is the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 3.

The Europeans fear that the re-imposition of sanctions may lead Iran to quit the nuclear deal entirely and plow ahead with efforts to develop atomic weapons, and they are hoping to preserve the JCPOA in the event Trump loses his bid for a second term. Democratic candidate Joe Biden has said he would try to revive the agreement.

The Trump administration says the deal wasn’t working and gave Iran billions of dollars to buy weapons and support its proxies while gradually easing sanctions.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, meanwhile, told U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in a Thursday phone call that the Security Council must resist the U.S. demand.

“This would have dangerous consequences for international law, it will bring nothing but the destruction of international mechanisms and it will discredit the Security Council,” Zarif said.

Iran's U.N. Ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi expressed confidence at a news conference that the Security Council will reject the U.S. move because it violates international law, “has not enjoyed the political support" of council members, “and is definitely doomed to failure."

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