May 13, 2020

Memo: Iran and the U.N. – What is the Administration Planning?

According to The New York Times, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is planning to use the expiration of the UN arms embargo on Iran in October 2020 in a broader strategy to snap back all United Nations sanctions on Iran and kill the nuclear accord before the November election. Below are crucial facts on why the administration’s destructive strategy will continue to erode America’s leverage with Iran and leadership on the global stage. 

This isn’t about extending the arms embargo. The administration’s strategy is a desperate ploy to kill the Iran nuclear deal and to lock a future president into conflict with Iran.

  • In the face of opposition at the UN Security Council, the administration’s initial push to extend the arms embargo will most likely fail. They will then pursue their true objective: triggering snapback of all UN resolutions on Iran in order to kill the deal.

  • With the prospect of a Biden administration on the horizon, Iran hawks want to destroy the deal to avoid U.S. reentry and maintain their hopes for war.
  • Prospective Democratic nominee Joe Biden has reiterated numerous times that he would reenter the nuclear deal, prompting fears from Iran hawks that the nuclear deal might outlive their attempts to kill it. 

The forthcoming expiration of the arms embargo is yet another signal that U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has been a massive failure

  • Trump promised a better deal following withdrawal, but only succeeded in loosening nuclear restrictions on Iran and moving us to the edge of war.
  • Leaving the deal decimated U.S. credibility with allies and adversaries alike, eliminating the only tools that have successfully advanced our interests on Iran — our ability to leverage a united international community, and our ability to negotiate directly with Iran.
  • The Obama administration secured the arms embargo in 2010 and then extended it for five years under the JCPOA through smart diplomacy, gaining the backing of allies in Europe, and competitors in China and Russia.
  • The Trump administration doesn’t even have U.S. allies on board with its Iran policy or extending the arms embargo, let alone China and Russia, because we have completely isolated ourselves on Iran and are not viewed as a trustworthy actor.
  • By eschewing consensus in favor of unilateralism, Trump’s only chance to extend the arms embargo will be by trying to snap back all United Nations resolutions on Iran in defiance of the rest of the world.

The legal case the administration is attempting to make on snapback is preposterous. 

  • The Trump administration is expected to argue that it is still a “participant” in the deal, despite declaring loudly numerous times that it had ceased participation in the deal.
  • The Trump administration would have to make their case at the Security Council, a body they deride, with diminished credibility on the international stage and widespread acknowledgment of their intent to collapse an internationally-acclaimed accord.
  • If the Trump administration forces a renewed embargo down the throats of the rest of the UN Security Council via dubious tactics like “snapback”, it will likely render the legality, enforceability, and consensus around a new embargo moot and erode all UN Security Council restrictions on Iran.

Even a failed attempt at snapback threatens to trigger a major crisis for global unity and leadership amidst a pandemic when international cooperation is needed most.

  • The Security Council should be a key piece of nearly every American foreign policy priority that depends on multilateralism, including COVID-19, climate change and North Korea’s nuclear program.
  • By seeking to pervert the snapback mechanism to reimpose all UN sanctions on Iran in bad faith, the U.S. would deeply harm its ability to work through the Security Council on any issue of importance for years to come.
  • Trump and the diplomatic saboteurs around him may not care about these ramifications, but everyone else should.

A successful snapback attempt would likely kill the JCPOA and spark an immediate nuclear crisis.

  • Iran has said that snapback of all UN resolutions would kill the JCPOA and prompt it to leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
  • North Korea offers a parallel to this crisis. After the collapse of the Agreed Framework, North Korea left the NPT, kicked out inspectors and obtained a nuclear deterrent.

A responsible administration would return to the nuclear accord and seek to extend its protections.

  • If the U.S. returned to the JCPOA, it could engage in longer-term negotiations with both our partners as well as directly with Iran to seriously address security concerns and secure meaningful changes of behavior, compromises, or restrictions.
  • Return would shore up eroding limits on Iran’s enrichment thresholds, number of centrifuges, enriched uranium stockpile and ensure intrusive inspections over Iran’s nuclear program indefinitely.

For more details on the U.N. Arms Embargo and related issues, please see our memo, The UN Arms Embargo and Snapback.






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