The Trump administration on Thursday formally notified the United Nations of its demand for all U.N. sanctions on Iran to be restored, setting off an immediate confrontation with Russia and other Security Council members, including America’s European allies, who called the U.S. move illegal.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered the notification to the president of the U.N. Security Council, citing significant Iranian violations of the 2015 nuclear deal, a requirement to “snap back” U.N. sanctions.
“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,” Pompeo told a U.N. press conference.
He said the U.S. action will extend the arms embargo, which is set to expire Oct. 18, and also prohibit Iran from ballistic missile testing and enrichment of nuclear material.
Russia’s deputy ambassador to the U.N., Dmitry Polyansky, shot back on Twitter: “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.”
At the heart of the dispute is President Donald Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal between six global powers and Iran.
The U.S. maintains that under the Security Council resolution endorsing the agreement it retains the right as an initial party to invoke the provision to “snap back” sanctions. Russia, China, Britain, France and virtually all other council members say the Trump administration does not have the right since it is no longer a party to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.
The U.S. action sets the stage for a showdown that could lead to a crisis of credibility for the Security Council.
In a letter presented to Indonesia’s ambassador to the U.N., Dian Triansyah Djani, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the council, Pompeo said the U.S. was notifying the body of “significant non-performance” by Iran related to the nuclear deal. As a result, Pompeo said the process leading to the re-imposition of U.N. sanctions had been initiated.
The U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has reported some Iranian violations of the agreement, but Tehran says those are the result of the U.S. violating the accord by withdrawing from it and then re-imposing harsh unilateral sanctions.
Pompeo noted that the European participants in the deal had attempted to bring Iran back into compliance. But he said “despite extensive efforts and exhaustive diplomacy on the part of those member states, Iran’s significant non-performance persists.”
“As a result, the United States is left with no choice but to notify the council that Iran is in significant non-performance of its JCPOA commitments,” Pompeo wrote.
Pompeo’s letter was accompanied by a six-page explanation of why the U.S. believes it retains the right to invoke snapback.
The U.S. insistence that it can authorize snapback has already been rejected by virtually all other members of the 15-nation council. Germany, a participant in the Iran deal, is currently serving a two-year term on the council, and is also opposed.
“France, Germany and the United Kingdom note that the US ceased to be a participant to the JCPOA following their withdrawal from the deal on May 8, 2018,” the group said in a statement released after Pompeo presented the letter. “We cannot therefore support this action which is incompatible with our current efforts to support the JCPOA.”
Pompeo lashed out at the Europeans, accusing them of privately agreeing with the U.S. concerns but lacking the courage to say so publicly. “Instead they chose to side with ayatollahs,” he said. “Their actions endanger the people of Iraq, of Yemen, of Lebanon, of Syria and indeed their own citizens as well.”
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, meanwhile, told U.N. chief 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.
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 under snapback, but he wouldn’t say which country would initiate it.
Because of the legal debate over U.S. standing, it is possible that the snapback demand will simply be ignored by the other members, which could call into question the Security Council’s relevance and ability to enforce its own legally binding decisions.
Security Council president Djani is holding one-on-one consultations with members on the legality of the U.S. action, council diplomats said, and the vast majority of members are virtually certain to agree that the U.S. not legally entitled to invoke snapback — meaning snapback has not been triggered and the U.S. action will have no effect.
In these circumstances, the Security Council president would not be obliged to introduce a resolution to extend sanctions relief, which would face a U.S. veto, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because consultations have been private.
Russia asked for an open council meeting Friday to discuss implementation of the resolution endorsing the nuclear deal. But deputy ambassador Polyansky tweeted Thursday evening, “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.”
Trump and Pompeo had made no secret of their intention to pursue snapback, particularly after the administration’s embarrassing defeat last week at the Security Council on extending the arms embargo on Iran that expires in October. The U.S. won just one other “yes” vote, with China and Russia opposed and the 11 other members abstaining.
The Europeans are hoping to preserve the nuclear deal in the event Trump loses his bid for a second term in November’s presidential election. Democratic Joe Biden has said he would try to revive the agreement.
The Europeans fear that the re-imposition of sanctions may lead Iran to quit the deal entirely and plow ahead with efforts to develop atomic weapons. The Trump administration says it withdrew precisely because the deal eased sanctions, opening major revenue streams for Iran while gradually easing restrictions on its nuclear activities that money could pay for.