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September 25, 2020

Rouhani Strikes Defiant Tone at UNGA & U.S Claims UN Sanctions Reimposed Despite International Rejection

This week, both the U.S. and Iranian presidents gave their respective speeches to the United Nations General Assembly. Also, the U.S. imposed new sanctions after claiming all UN sanctions were reimposed on Iran, which was met with yet another round of rejection from the international community. Please see our breakdown and analysis below: 

UNGA: Iranian President Strikes a Defiant Tone Against U.S., Trump Largely Avoids Iran

  • Despite Heated Rhetoric, NYT Report Highlights Iran’s Pragmatic Approach
    • President Trump, in his pre-recorded U.N. General Assembly speech on Sept 22nd, spent most of his time lambasting China and various multilateral institutions, but also briefly mentioned Iran. He stated in this speech that the U.S. “withdrew from the terrible Iran Nuclear Deal and imposed crippling sanctions on the world’s leading state sponsor of terror. We obliterated the ISIS caliphate 100 percent; killed its founder and leader, al-Baghdadi; and eliminated the world’s top terrorist, Qasem Soleimani.”
    • In contrast to President Trump’s speech, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani focused almost exclusively on U.S. pressure on Iran, including the now three-year- old crippling sanctions regime and the United States’ unsuccessful attempt to reimpose UN sanctions on Iran.

    • In his speech later in the day on Sept. 22nd, he used very charged language in describing U.S. pressure on Iran by invoking the death of George Floyd at the hands of U.S. authorities, calling it “reminiscent of our own experience” under U.S. sanctions. He went on to say that, “we instantly recognize the feet kneeling on the neck as the feet of arrogance on the neck of independent nations.”

    • In reference to the snap back attempt by the U.S., who on Sept. 19th declared that UN sanctions had been reimposed on Iran despite 13 out of 15 UN Security Council members rejecting the claim, President Rouhani hailed that “this is a victory not just for Iran, but for the global community – during the transitional international order in the post-Western world – that an aspirant to hegemony is humiliated in such self-created isolation.”

    • Two days prior, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said in an interview at the Council of Foreign Relations that the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was “a great mistake” by the United States, adding that “the book” on Iran’s retaliatory measures “is not closed.” In another interview on Iranian TV, he warned that “Iran will definitely respond” if the U.S. interdicts Iranian ships in light of the U.S. claims on snap back. 
    • Despite their heated rhetoric, the New York Times cited U.S. intelligence assessments on Iran’s toned-done approach in the region in the lead up to the U.S. presidential election. According to the report, which cited U.S. and allied intelligence sources, Iran decided against an “election season surprise” this fall  with Iranian leaders having instead concluded that restraint would be the best way to respond to U.S. pressure during an election season.

    • Iran’s apparent restraint continues in spite of suspected sabotage of the Natanz nuclear facility in July, the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soliemani in January, and continued Israeli sorties in Syria on purported Iranian targets. According to the report, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blocked a large-scale response to all of them, instead condoning cyberattacks on Israeli critical infrastructure and the less than symbolic strikes on Al-Asad airbase in Iraq.  
  • Key Takeaways
    • President Trump’s speech, while light on Iran, seemed to intentionally draw Iran, represented by Soleimani, and ISIS as parallel enemies against the U.S., a rhetorical device that is reminiscent of President Bush’s “axis of evil” comment in 2003. It was a surprise that he did not mention the U.S. attempt to reimpose UN sanctions on Iran, but perhaps he and his advisors saw the gambit more as failure than others in the administration would admit. 
    • Iran’s approach to maximum pressure over the last three years have undoubtedly been pragmatic and cautious, despite harsh rhetoric and occasional escalations. However, sanctions have wrought profound damage on the Iranian population, including by decimating the economy and limiting their ability to secure vital food and medicine. 
    • Moreover, while Khamenei may have rebuffed plans for a more comprehensive response to the killing of Soleimani at the time, Iran has traditionally been patient in its response to previous actions. Soleimani was Iran’s most popular leader and Zarif’s claim that the “book is not closed” is an ominous sign from a minister who tends to be very cautious with his public statements. Iran will most likely stay their hand until the results of the U.S. election are finalized, but this issue may resurface in the coming months and years. 

U.S. Imposes New Sanctions Days After Claims That UN Sanctions Have Been Reimposed

  • UN Secretary-General States that Snap Back Issue Remains “Uncertain” 
    • On Monday, Sept. 21st, two Department Secretaries and 4 administration officials came together at the U.S. State Department for a press conference regarding the supposed return of United Nations sanctions on Iran. They also announced a new Executive Order and a new, yet redundant, raft of U.S. sanctions on Iranian entities, which included the designation of officials from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), companies assisting the AEOI, as well as officials and companies connected to Iran’s ballistic missile program under Iran’s Ministry of Defense.

    • Separately, the State Department’s point man for Iran Elliot Abrams gave an interview with the BBC Persian news service, where in a response to a question about Europe & other countries’ support for JCPOA, he criticized them as having a “religious devotion” to the JCPOA. Abrams also testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he again lamented the E3’s position.

    • This comes after the U.S., on Sept 19th, declared that U.N. sanctions had been reimposed on Iran. According to U.S. officials,  the reimposition of sanctions includes the expiring international arms embargo on Iran, as well as restriction on Iran’s ability to enrich uranium and development or use of its ballistic missiles program.

    • In yet another rebuke to these claims, on Sept. 19th, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany released a joint statement stating that the U.S. declaration on the reimposition of UN sanctions is “incapable of having any legal effect.”

    • Also, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, breaking his silence on the issue for the first time, said on Sept. 19th that he cannot take any action on a U.S. declaration that all U.N. sanctions on Iran had been reimposed because “there would appear to be uncertainty” on the issue. Traditionally, the UN Secretary-General convenes a sanctions committee to assist the UNSC in its sanctions obligations. His comments suggest that he does not plan to do so. 
    • For background, on August 14th, the Trump administration sought to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran: 13 out of 15 UN Security Council Members rejected the U.S. position. On August 20th, the Trump administration sought an even more radical move, the snap back of all UN sanctions on Iran – a sensitive maneuver reserved for JCPOA participants who had exhausted the agreement’s dispute resolution mechanism. Again, 13 of 15 UN Security Council Members rejected the U.S. move in an embarrassing loss for American diplomats.
  • Key Takeaways
    • The administration’s press conference announcing the imposition of sanctions was more bluster than substance. By having so many high ranking officials attend, including the U.S. Secretaries for Defense and State, they attempted to add more public legitimacy to their claims on snap back, but did little to give themselves new authorities or expand existing ones.

    • The administration pushed out a new Executive Order, complemented by additional sanctions designations, with warnings that it expects the international community to comply with both unilateral U.S. and imaginary United Nations resolutions. However, even here, there was less than met the eye. Some of the targets of the new designations – including Nicolas Maduro and Defense Industries Organization – were already subject to U.S. sanctions.

    • Moreover, their threats to the international community to comply with their dubious claims just extends the rhetoric accompanying the administration’s maximum pressure campaign without adding much substance. While theoretically the U.S. can impose secondary sanctions on Russia or China for selling weapons to Iran, they had that authority under various existing U.S. laws already.

    • When you add it all up, the inescapable conclusion is that the administration is continuing to double down on a failed policy and papering over its failings with bluster. Instead of working with allied countries to chart a more realistic, mutually beneficial path for Iran policy, they’ve resigned themselves to dual-reality proclamations and bluster.
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