August 21, 2020

US Tries to Trigger Snapback Sanctions, UAE-Iran Tensions Flare & Iranian Bounties

This week, the U.S. “snapback” bid was rejected by allies in Europe as well as Russia and China. Also, tensions between Iran and the UAE flare in the Persian Gulf and media reports suggest Iran may have paid bounties for Afghan attacks on U.S. soldiers. Please see our analysis and breakdown below:

U.S. Files Complaint to Trigger Snapback of All UN Sanctions on Iran

  • US Strategy Unites UNSC in Opposition

    • On Thursday, August 20th, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo officially submitted a complaint to the UNSC to invoke the snapback of all U.N. sanctions on Iran using a legal maneuver that most of the UN Security Council considers dubious. This comes after an abysmal failure at the UNSC last week that saw a resolution to indefinitely extend the UN Arms Embargo on Iran fail, with only the Dominican Republic supporting the U.S.-led effort.
    • In his remarks at the U.N., Secretary Pompeo lambasted European allies and made the case for why the move was within the boundaries of international law. “Our friends in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom – the E3 – all told me privately that they don’t want the arms embargo lifted either. And yet today, in the end, they provided no alternatives, no options…Instead, they chose to side with ayatollahs.
    • When asked what the U.S. would do if Russia and China ignore U.S. claims that snapback sanctions have been reimposed and begin selling weapons to Iran, he said “When the U.S. sanctions were violated, we enforced them. When UN sanctions are violated, we’re going to do everything we can to enforce them as well.”
    • The U.S. complaint was met with a strong and immediate rejection by European allies, who often paper over differences with the U.S. via careful diplomatic language. The United Kingdom, France and Germany sent a joint letter to the President of the UNSC, stating that they “do not consider that the United States is a JCPOA participant State under UNSCR 2231 anymore and therefore do not consider that the United States’ notification is effective.” It went on to say that “President Trump’s Memorandum of 8 May 2018 formalized this position” and that the “E3 firmly believes that the purported notification” by the United States to snap back sanctions “is incapable of having legal effect.”
    • Russia’s UN ambassador bluntly said Pompeo is “not triggering a snapback…Snapback can be triggered by a country that is a participant of the JCPOA, which the U.S. is not.” Similarly, China’s U.N. spokesperson said, “The US demand has no legal ground and common sense. It is nothing but a political show staged by the United States. It receives no support of the Security Council members and no acknowledgment of the international community.”
    • Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi said in his remarks that “US notification is incapable of having legal effect. It’s null and void. None of the remaining JCPOA participants considers the notification as effective. We trust the SC will not permit the US to abuse Res 2231 to achieve its stated objective of destroying that very resolution.”
    • The Trump administration, in submitting the complaint yesterday, will now be able to claim after the 30-day notification window expires that sanctions have been reimposed before the UN General Assembly convenes in late September, though it appears unlikely that most of the rest of the international community will agree.
    • Following the failure of the UN Arms Embargo extension last week, 49 members of the Iranian parliament tabled a resolution that would oblige the Iranian government led by President Hassan Rouhani to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal if snapback sanctions were reimposed on Iran. The draft legislation would give President Rouhani’s government 72 hours after the reinstatement of Security Council sanctions against Tehran to take clear measures to remove Iran from the deal.
  • Key Takeaways
    • The snapback affair has been the starkest demonstration yet of how the Trump administration’s Iran approach has been untethered from reality, and only succeeded in alienating friends and adversaries alike and eroding American diplomatic credibility. As Jon Alterman of CSIS told the New York Times, “It’s unthinkable to me why you would intentionally lose a fight like this, at the U.N.”
    • The answer to that question likely lies in both ideology and domestic politics. Secretary Pompeo, in particular, has long lied about the nuclear deal and made no secret of his aim to destroy it. President Trump, meanwhile, has courted political donors and conservative Evangelical voters eager to dismantle the accord. Any perceived gains to their political futures come at the expense of America’s diplomatic credibility, the functioning of the Security Council amid a pandemic and a strong nonproliferation deal with Iran.
    • The Trump administration’s bizarre approach effectively creates two realities at the United Nations. One, held by the United States, will claim that snapback has occurred as of September 19th. The other, held by the rest of the P5 and most of the rest of the world, will reject this and block the Trump administration from implementing the reimposition of sanctions, including the committees that oversee implementation of UN sanctions. While the Trump reality would be dashed by a Biden victory, the possibility of a Trump victory would deal a severe blow to efforts to sustain the JCPOA.
    • The worst of it is that this situation was wholly predictable. All other members of the P5+1 have indicated for months that they believe the U.S. does not have “standing” on the issue of snapback after they formally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018. The Trump administration, undeterred in their mission to destroy the JCPOA, did not care what damage they wrought and chose to pursue unilateralism at the expense of its own diplomatic credibility and that of the Security Council.
    • Given how poorly this show went for the United States, Iran has a strong incentive not to step out of line with the JCPOA participants and invite further division. However, the Rouhani administration will continue to be under severe pressure from domestic opponents eager for confrontation. Some have speculated that if snapback is achieved, Iran would begin withdrawing from both the JCPOA and Non-Proliferation Treaty – an escalatory step, though one that would likely be delayed until after the U.S. Presidential election in order to provide clarity on whether the U.S. is open to returning to its commitments.
    • For additional information on snapback, the Arms Embargo, and the damaging consequences of the Administration’s strategy, please see the sources below:

Iran and UAE Spar in Persian Gulf

  • Incidents Add Tension After Growing Engagement between Iran and UAE & UAE-Israel Agreement
    • Iran’s Foreign Ministry said that Iran seized a United Arab Emirates-registered ship that it said was violating its territorial waters. The UAE declined to comment on the allegations and there are few details of the ship in question or the incident more broadly. Iran also accused UAE coastguards of killing two Iranian fishermen on the same day and seizing a fishing vessel along with its crew.
    • Iran has said the UAE privately apologized but has yet to make an official comment on the incident. A statement from the Iranian Foreign Ministry said, “As a result of Iran’s efforts, the UAE authorities … in a note on Wednesday, expressed their deep regret over the incident and announced their readiness to compensate for all the damage caused.”
    • The incidents occur during a delicate moment in UAE-Iran relations. On August 15, President Rouhani rebuked Emirati leaders for a deal finalized last week that would effectively normalize relations between the UAE and Israel. They “should know that if they think they can get closer to the enemies of Islam and Iran, they can buy security for themselves, they have gone in the wrong direction.” The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) also statedthat the agreement “will spell a dangerous future for those residing in glass palaces in the UAE.”
    • Despite heated rhetoric over the accord, the UAE and Iran have developed a new channel of communication that was almost non-existent prior to 2019. Following the attack on Saudi oil fields in September 2019, the UAE unfroze over $400 million in Iranian assets. Representatives of each country’s respective Navy also met to discuss de-escalation in the Gulf. And on August 2nd, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan held a virtual meeting that Zarif said was “a very substantive, frank and friendly video conversation” on COVID-19 as well as “bilateral, regional and global situations.”
  • Key Takeaways

    • Despite this flashpoint, Iran and UAE engagement that has developed over the last two years will most likely survive this recent conflagration of tensions. In remarks on August 20th at the Atlantic Council in reference to the UAE-Israel agreement, UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash said that it is in the UAE’s strategic interest to engage with Iran and to resolve their deep differences through negotiations. Moreover, he went on to highlight that the deal struck with Israel was not about Iran, seemingly signaling to Iranian interlocutors that this deal should not compromise their new found channel of communication.

    • However, while diplomatic relations should be encouraged and applauded by both parties, there are factions in Iran and elsewhere in the region who may not want a larger rapprochement between the UAE and Iran. While it’s possible the two incidents described above are a coincidence, they should more likely be seen in context of the UAE-Israel deal and the role the Palestinian issue plays throughout Iranian politics and internal tensions between politicians like Zarif and his IRGC counterparts.

U.S. Intelligence Assessment Claims Iran Paid Taliban Bounties for Attacks on U.S. Soldiers

  • Officials Feared Responding Would Upset Peace Efforts in Afghanistan

    • According to a CNN report, U.S. intelligence agencies believe that Iran offered bounties to Afghan fighters for targeting American and coalition troops in Afghanistan. These ‘bounties’ were initially paid to the Haqqani network, which has deep rooted ties with the Taliban, and whose leader is the second highest ranking leader of the Taliban.

    • CNN also cites a Pentagon briefing document that states these bounties were used in connection to an attack on Bagram Air Base on December 11, 2019, which killed two civilians and injured more than 70 others, as well as five other attacks. The briefing noted that while Taliban fights and the Haqqani network do not need payment in order to attack US troops, they most likely functioned as an incentive for more aggressive or more frequent attacks.

    • While the assassination of Iranian General Soleimani occurred only three weeks after this incident, the article suggests that the bounties were not taken into account. Two months later, a decision was made to avoid responding to Iranian efforts for fear that it would put the U.S.-Taliban agreement in jeopardy.

    • An internal memo from the Trump administration obtained by CNN said they should not take specific steps toward addressing the cooperation between Iran and Haqqani operatives to avoid undermining peace efforts. The deal with the Taliban, signed in February, came after more than a year of negotiations between US and Afghan interlocutors. This report comes after similar assessments from U.S. agencies were leaked to the press concerning Russian bounties paid to Taliban fighters to attack U.S. troops.

    • In reference to the leaked assessments, Pentagon spokesman Maj Rob Lodewick, said, “the Department of Defense does not disclose timelines or discussions surrounding internal deliberations and intelligence briefings. With that being said, the department has repeatedly demanded, both publicly and privately, that Iran cease its scourge of malign and destabilizing behavior throughout the Middle East and the world.”

    • In a statement,  Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh called the claims “entirely false” and said the U.S. tries to hide its “miscalculations” in Afghanistan by “resorting to propaganda.”
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