U.S. to demand restoration of UN sanctions against Iran on Thursday

The United States will demand Thursday that all United Nations sanctions be reimposed against Iran, U.S. President Donald Trump said Wednesday, a move that follows America’s embarrassing defeat to extend an arms embargo against Tehran.

The administration’s insistence on snapping back international sanctions against Iran sets the stage for a contentious dispute. It’s possible that the U.S. call will be ignored by other U.N. members — an outcome that could call into question the U.N. Security Council’s ability to enforce its own legally binding decisions.

“It’s a snap back,” Trump said Wednesday.

The sanctions had been eased under the 2015 nuclear deal that Trump withdrew from two years ago. But last week the U.S. lost its long-shot bid to indefinitely extend an international arms embargo on Iran and has now moved to a new diplomatic line of attack.

Trump said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to New York on Thursday to present the U.S. demand to reimpose the sanctions, accusing Iran of significant non-compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.

Snapback allows participants to demand the restoration of all UN sanctions in a complicated procedure that cannot be blocked by a veto.

Pompeo and Trump have made no secret of their intention to invoke snapback, especially since their attempt to extend the arms embargo suffered an embarrassing defeat last Friday. The U.S. won just one other Yes vote, with China and Russia opposed and the 11 other members abstaining.

Just like the arms embargo extension, the administration’s snapback plan is bitterly opposed by China and Russia as well as the other Security Council members, including U.S. allies Britain and France, and could set the stage for a battle over the legitimacy of the UN’s most powerful body.

Alone among the council’s 15 members, the U.S. argues that as an original participant in the nuclear deal it retains the right to demand restoration of sanctions.

The others, which still support the deal, maintain the U.S. lost that standing when Trump pulled out of the accord in 2018, but it isn’t clear if they can stop the invocation of snapback through technical procedural means.

The U.S. argument is highly controversial. It has been ridiculed by the Chinese, Russians and Europeans, and not even the biggest Iran hawks in the United States all agree with it.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks off the stage following a news conference at the State Department in Washington on Wednesday, where he defended the legitimacy of using the ‘snapback’ provision at the UN for sanctions on Iran. (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)

Former Trump national security adviser John Bolton, no slouch when it comes to anti-Iran positions, has long said that the U.S. lost its snapback standing when it withdrew from the deal and that moving ahead is not worth the damage it could do to U.S. veto power in the council.

In a stunningly rare moment of agreement, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif praised Bolton this week.

“At least he is consistent — a trait notably absent in this U.S. administration,” Zarif tweeted.

And, former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, a top Obama administration negotiator of the nuclear agreement, said: “It was never expected that someone who withdrew from the [deal]  would have standing to in fact bring the snapback provision.”

Iran has ramped up since U.S. withdrawal

Thus, the administration’s insistence on moving ahead has set the stage for a contentious dispute and the possibility that the U.S. call would simply be ignored by other UN members. That outcome would potentially call into question the Security Council’s ability to enforce its own legally binding decisions.

Under the terms of Security Council Resolution 2231, which enshrined the nuclear deal and to which the U.S. remains a party, the invocation of snapback for significant Iranian noncompliance starts a 30-day clock during which the council must vote affirmatively to continue the sanctions relief that Iran was given in return for curbs on its nuclear program.

John Bolton, former national security adviser for Trump, has panned the validity of using the mechanism. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

Pompeo is expected to present evidence of significant noncompliance, likely the latest reports of the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, on Thursday.

Iran does not deny violating some terms of the deal but says its actions have been forced by the U.S. withdrawal and the Trump administration’s reimposition of U.S. sanctions.

As envisioned by the Obama administration, which led the negotiations that culminated in the nuclear deal called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the United States or any other permanent member of the council could use its veto to block the continuation of sanctions relief. In theory, that would result in the reimposition of sanctions.

But whether any other council member will respond to the U.S. move by introducing a resolution to extend sanctions relief is an open question.

Some UN experts believe the others will just ignore the Americans, leaving the Trump administration in the possible position of having to introduce its own resolution to extend sanctions relief for the sole purpose of vetoing it.

“We don’t know if any country will do that,” said Richard Gowan, the UN director of the International Crisis Group. “If the general view of the council is that the U.S. doesn’t have standing, it’s quite possible that no council member will even engage at that level.”

“The U.S. could actually table a resolution of its own and then veto it, just to show that it is going through the procedural motions, although that would look a little bit farcical,” Gowan said.

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