Trump plays his last Iran card

Manal Lotfy , Wednesday 26 Aug 2020

The snapback mechanism in the Iran nuclear deal could isolate Washington and undermine its UN veto power

Trump plays his last Iran card
Pompeo flanked by US Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft and Hook this week (photo: Reuters)

The US has played its last card amid escalating international tensions over the reinstatement of sanctions on Iran. 

Last Friday the clock began ticking on the automatic restoration of UN sanctions on Iran, using the “snapback” mechanism in the Iran nuclear deal.

According to UN Security Council Resolution 2231, the “snapback provision” is a tool that could allow the automatic return of sanctions on Iran within 30 days after one of the signatory countries of the deal activates the mechanism in response to a lack of Iranian compliance.

On 20 August, the US administration sent a letter to the UN Security Council requesting the launch of the “snapback” mechanism.

The US move comes in response to the failure of its efforts in the Security Council to extend the arms embargo on Iran, which will end 18 October.

Therefore, the 30-day countdown has begun, but the consequences and ramifications are far from clear and the coming days will see a power struggle, with legal and political claims made on both sides of the argument.

The US move is opposed by 13 countries of the Security Council’s 15 member states. Harsh criticism against the US came from Washington’s European allies and China, but the strongest criticism came from Russia.

As soon as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered the letter invoking snapback, Russia’s Deputy UN Ambassador Dmitry Polyansky, tweeted: “Looks like there are 2 planets. A fictional dog-eat-dog one where the 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 international law and diplomacy reign.”

Britain, France and Germany said they oppose the US motion and will use all available diplomatic tools to frustrate it.

In a joint statement, the three European nations said Washington cannot call for a “snapback” of sanctions because the US administration withdrew from the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2018.

The EU announced that it will meet with Russia, China and Iran in Vienna on 1 September to discuss their options.

The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said in a statement, “I will continue to do everything possible to ensure the preservation and full implementation of the JCPOA by all. The JCPOA remains a key pillar of the global non-proliferation architecture, contributing to regional security.”

A European diplomat told Al-Ahram Weekly: “It is Trump’s last card after Washington’s failure to extend the arms embargo on Iran. It is a gamble. America does not control the Security Council and cannot restore sanctions against Iran by itself. The coming days will be a test for transatlantic relations. France, the UK and Germany are determined to prevent America from destroying the nuclear deal. Which power will prevail? This is the question.”

The Trump administration dismissed its critics after activating the snapback mechanism. Pompeo and US Special Envoy for Iran Brian Hook questioned the motives of those who object.

“We don’t need anyone’s permission,” Hook told reporters in a briefing after the unilateral US move. “Iran is in violation of its voluntary nuclear commitments. The condition has been met to initiate the snapback,” said Hook.


LEGAL ARGUMENTS: In the coming days, the debate over the US move will not only be political, but also legal.

When Pompeo officially informed the Security Council president and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that the US was invoking the snapback, Pompeo said that Washington has a “legal right” because the US is mentioned as a party to the 2015 nuclear deal in Resolution 2231.

But many critics emphasise the fact that the US was described as a “JCPOA participant” in a paragraph of Resolution 2231 that is purely descriptive; it lists as a factual matter the participants at the time of the resolution’s adoption in 2015.

Hence, the term “participant” is not a honorific title; it denotes active 
participation in the deal, and complying with its terms, which the US ceased to do.

But even if the US is still a participant state, using the snapback mechanism does not lead automatically to reimposing sanctions within 30 days after the US presents the Security Council with a notification.

A Security Council diplomat told the AP news agency that according to his understanding the US letter from Pompeo did not trigger the snapback and the start of the 30-day process to reimpose UN sanctions. Thus, the US action would have no effect and the council president would not be required to introduce a resolution to 
extend sanctions relief, which would face a US veto, the diplomat said.

He also emphasised the importance of ensuring that Iran understands this and does not make any rash decisions.

Furthermore, resorting to the snapback mechanism is the final stage of the JCPOA dispute resolution mechanism, which can restore previous UN resolutions that were suspended under Resolution 2231.

Paragraph 10 of Resolution 2231 explains how the countries participating in the JCPOA could use dispute resolution mechanisms if Iran’s noncompliance was found to constitute “significant non-performance.”

Many UNSC countries argue that there is no violation of the deal from Iran.


UNDERMINING THE US VETO: Following the meeting with Pompeo, Indonesia’s UN Ambassador Dian Triansyah Djani, the current council president, began one-on-one consultations with its 14 other members on the legality of the US action, council diplomats said.

All members, except the Dominican Republic, informed the council president that since the US is not a party to the 2015 JCPOA, the Trump administration’s action is illegal. 

Even Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton said the US has no legal grounds for triggering the UN mechanism to renew sanctions on Iran.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal on Sunday, Bolton said “It’s too cute by half to say we’re in the nuclear deal for purposes we want but not for those we don’t.”

He added: “That alone is sufficient reason not to trigger the snapback process. Why afford any American legitimacy to this misbegotten creature? Further, the UN Charter allows no vetoes to decide ‘procedural’ questions, and that is how between nine and 13 members may categorise, and thereby stymie, Mr Trump’s ploy.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif picked up the comments, tweeting: “At least he is consistent — a trait notably absent in this US administration.”

Susan Rice, former US president Barack Obama’s national security adviser, tweeted that invoking the snapback would undermine the US veto.

“Invoking the snapback, when the US first violated the Iran deal by withdrawing unilaterally, will undermine the US veto in the UNSC and global sanctions regimes. Dumb and Dumber,” she said.

The Europeans fear that the reimposition of sanctions may lead Iran to quit the nuclear deal entirely and go ahead with efforts to develop atomic weapons. They are hoping to preserve the 2015 deal, 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 Iranian nuclear deal is hanging by a thread. All eyes will be on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). If the IAEA concludes that Iran is still committed to the deal, the legal and political justification for the US snapback move will be even weaker. 


*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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