UN Security Council Weighs US Demand to Reimpose Iran Sanctions

The Trump administration’s formal complaint triggered a 30-day deadline for the U.N. council to pass a resolution either waiving Iranian sanctions or putting them back into place.

Members of the U.N. Security Council vote on the landmark Iran nuclear deal in July 2015. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

(CN) — Strong disagreement on the United Nations Security Council over whether the U.S. has the right to reinstate full sanctions on Iran long after exiting the watershed nuclear agreement did not deter Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from making the controversial demand Thursday.

“The U.S. will never allow the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism to freely buy and sell planes, tanks and missiles and other kinds of conventional weapons,” Pompeo said at a press conference after meeting with members of the U.N. Security Council in New York. “The restored sanctions will also impose accountability for other Iranian hostility.”

The decision by the Trump administration to restore sanctions sets in motion a complex diplomatic quandary. When President Donald Trump removed the U.S. from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, in 2018, this meant America was no longer a party to the agreement and therefore could not rightfully enforce any mechanisms built into the deal like sanctions snapbacks, according to the other members of the Security Council.

A snapback allows full sanctions imposed on a nation to be reinstated in full if the party of interest, in this case Iran, fails to comply with terms of the Security Council’s mutual agreement on nonnuclear proliferation in the region.

Party to the agreement or not, the U.S. contends it can still invoke the snapback because of language found in a provision dubbed resolution 2231 that enshrined the agreement stating that a “participant state” can submit a complaint and request sanctions be applied.

“We have every capacity under [resolution] 2231 to do this, “ Pompeo told reporters, before saying moments later that the European Union and other signatories to the JCPOA should recognize “the Islamic Republic of Iran for what it is.”

“A theocratic, brutish regime that will not voluntarily seek peace for the Iranian people,” the secretary added.

Members of the U.N. council, including Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov, called the maneuver by the Trump administration “absurd” on Thursday ahead of Pompeo’s appearance.

Upon filing the complaint, a 30-day countdown is triggered for the council to pass a resolution that can either waive sanctions or see them snap back. The U.S. has veto power and can reject a passed resolution anyway, making the snapback all but a certainty, despite protests. 

The maneuver is also strategic. If full sanctions are reinstated in 30 days, that would mean that the Iranian arms embargo arranged under the JCPOA would be extended. The arms moratorium is scheduled to expire in October and Thursday’s formal filing by Pompeo was only spurred because a resolution to extend the embargo permanently by U.S. failed at the U.N. last week.

Only the Dominican Republic joined the U.S in its quest, while world powers like China and Russia shot the indefinite embargo extension down by veto, leaning instead toward continuing negotiations with Iran under the 2015 deal.

In 2015, President Barack Obama and world leaders from the European Union, Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China reached an agreement with Iran that gave reprieve to Tehran from stiff existing sanctions long crippling its economy. In exchange, Iran agreed to curb its nuclear ambitions for at least 10 years and grant world powers monitoring and inspection access inside nuclear or would-be nuclear facilities inside of its borders. Iran also agreed to shut down centrifuges dotting its countryside.

Until Trump yanked the U.S. out of the deal, groups like the International Atomic Energy Agency reported positive quarterly updates from Tehran’s nuclear program.

One report a year out from the U.S. withdrawal for example, found Iran continuing to stockpile uranium below the cap set in the 2015 agreement and enriched uranium levels “far below” what is considered useful for weapons purposes. But the increases, like tensions between the U.S. and Iran, have steadily ticked upward.  

Since the Trump administration abandoned the deal and began lobbing its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, opportunities for conflict have been ripe.

Last May, when sanction exemptions for other nations purchasing oil from Iran ended and put Iran’s already hamstrung economy in even greater peril, the response by the nation desperate to shore up its economy was dramatic: Iran bombed commercial oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman carrying crude from the Saudis and Emiratis.

“If Iran couldn’t freely trade its oil, then neither would its rivals,” David Wallsh, Middle East expert and national security fellow for the Truman Project, wrote for the Atlantic Council this February.

When Iranian forces reportedly shot down an unmanned U.S. drone just a month after the Gulf of Oman incident, the U.S. nearly came to blows with Tehran directly. That time, Trump took to Twitter saying the U.S. was “cocked and loaded” and that he only opted against a retaliatory strike a mere 10 minutes before it was scheduled.

The U.S. formed a coalition with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates known as Operation Sentinel in the weeks that followed, arguing high traffic areas like the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz needed to be protected from Iranian aggression.

This January, tensions hit a fever pitch when Trump launched a surface-to-air missile strike killing Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and others, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi militia leader.

“President Trump has discarded the fiction that Iran is peaceful,” Pompeo said Thursday when fielding questions about the necessity of the sanctions snapback.

Not included in the Iran nuclear deal was a ban on the nation’s development of ballistic and cruise missiles. On Thursday, as Pompeo headed to New York, Iranian state-run TV celebrated the unveiling of two new ballistic missiles, one of which was named after Soleimani.

Iran’s Defense Minister Amir Hatami said Thursday the ballistic missile could reach 600 miles and the new cruise missile could reach 400 miles.

Pompeo was unwilling to say specifically what the next steps would be for the U.S. once the snapback goes into effect.

If the arms embargo expires in October and China or Russia, for example, began to sell weapons to Iran, the secretary said the U.S. would take action permitted under the U.N. Security Council rules.

“We need look no further than the history of the last two years – when U.S. sanctions were violated, we enforced them. When U.N. sanctions are violated, we’re going to do everything we can to enforce them as well,” Pompeo said.

Any debate over whether the U.S. can initiate the snapback isn’t one worth having, Pompeo argued.

“No resolution can be altered unilaterally by any country, not Iran, Russia or China. The Security Council resolution can only be changed by subsequent Security Council resolutions. We think this is very straightforward and very simple and the U.S. will vigorously enforce them,” he said.

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