Despite international calls to reconsider its actions, the US administration has unilaterally slapped additional sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme.
Announcing the sanctions this week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the UK, France and Germany would be required not just to comply with the sanctions, but also to enforce them, despite their resistance to the US imposition of further sanctions.
Pompeo’s tone provoked anger in Europe, where he is seen as a symbol of dangerous US policies abroad, according to European diplomats. European leaders have warned the US that its claimed authority to reimpose comprehensive UN-mandated sanctions on Iran is legally void.
In a joint statement, France, Germany and the UK said that Washington did not have the authority to act unilaterally, setting up a major clash that could even lead Washington to take action against its European allies.
Russia also challenged the US move on Tuesday when it announced it would begin military cooperation with Iran once the UN embargo on conventional arms shipments to Iran ends in October.
Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that any agreements with Iran would have “nothing to do with the unlawful and illegal actions of the US administration, which is trying to intimidate the entire world.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will be meeting his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in Moscow today to formalise the agreement.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the legal uncertainty surrounding the US claim meant it was not possible to declare that UN sanctions had been reimposed, adding that the UN would not support reimposing sanctions on Iran.
Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said the so-called “snapback” sanctions had only happened in “the fantastical world” of the US administration.
The US move also sets the stage for an ugly showdown at the annual UN General Assembly this week, as the nuclear deal with Iran, signed between the members of the UN Security Council and Germany in 2015, but later withdrawn from by the US, is hanging by a thread.
Iran is not expected to take steps that might lead to the total collapse of the agreement, but in the event of the re-election of US President Donald Trump in November’s US presidential elections, all scenarios will be possible.
“The United States has now restored UN sanctions on Iran,” said Trump in a statement issued shortly after he signed an executive order spelling out how the US would enforce the “snapback” sanctions.
The sanctions include freezes on assets in US jurisdictions, bar Americans from doing business with Iran, and open up foreign governments, companies and individuals to US penalties should they engage with individuals or organisations named under the sanctions.
Speaking to reporters in Washington, Pompeo said the administration was hitting more than two dozen Iranian individuals and institutions with penalties. “No matter who you are, if you violate the UN arms embargo on Iran you risk sanctions,” he said.
However, nearly all of the targets identified, including the Iranian Defence Ministry, its procurement arm, Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, several Iranian scientists and Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro, were already subject to sanctions the administration reimposed after Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018.
Trump’s new executive order mainly affects Iranian and foreign entities involved in conventional weapons and ballistic missile activity. A UN arms embargo on Iran is to expire in October under the terms of the nuclear deal, but Pompeo and others insist the “snapback” has brought forward its termination.
But few UN member states believe the US has the legal standing to reimpose the sanctions because Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018. The US argues it retains the right to do so as an original participant in the deal and a member of the UN Security Council.
Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s nuclear agency, said on Monday that there was a broad agreement in the international community that the nuclear pact should be preserved.
At a conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Salehi said the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, as the Iran nuclear deal is known, has been “caught in a quasi-stalemate situation” since the US pulled out.
While insisting it is not pursuing the development of nuclear weapons, Iran has been steadily breaking restrictions on the amount of uranium it can enrich, the purity it can enrich it to, and other limitations.
But Iran has far less enriched uranium and lower-purity uranium than it had before signing the deal, and it has continued to allow international inspectors into its nuclear facilities.
Trump’s Democratic Party opponent in the November elections, former US vice-president Joe Biden, has signalled that he would re-join the deal if elected, but he has also said he wants to negotiate tougher terms and expand the agreement’s mandate to include non-nuclear matters.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that Tehran was open to talks, but only if it was compensated for sanctions that had already been reimposed by the US. He said he would not renegotiate the terms of the 2015 deal, a signature foreign-policy achievement of former US president Barack Obama.
“It is up to the United States to prove to the rest of the JCPOA participants, particularly to Iran, that it’s going to act responsibly, that it’s not going to make demands outside the scope of the JCPOA, and that it’s going to basically stop causing damage to Iran,” Zarif said at an online event hosted by the US Council on Foreign Relations.
The timing of the new US sanctions puts Iran face to face with conflicting options. If Tehran responds, it may face criticism from its European allies, and if it does not respond, the Iranian leadership could appear weak in front of its regional allies.
Yet, with the US elections approaching, waiting could be the only move Tehran can make on this complex chessboard. If Biden were elected in November, things could improve, said Chris Doyle, director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.
But even if Biden were elected, relations with Iran would likely not improve quickly or dramatically within a short period of time.
“Biden needs to do something regarding Iran early on his administration because the Iranians are pushing forward with their nuclear activity and he has to demonstrate that he can resolve that issue. The challenge is how to convince the hardliners in Iran to trust any deal with the US after Trump ripped up the nuclear deal,” Doyle said.
The crisis with Iran would also not be solved if Trump leaves the White House in November, he said, as the dispute leaves the US at loggerheads with much of the rest of the world.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly