Iranians at an anti-US protest in Tehran on May 9, 2018, one day after Trump announced the US was ditching the nuclear agreement and reimposing sanctions on Iran. Photo: EPA-EFE
by Will Saetren
by Will Saetren

Global outcry against US call for sanctions ‘snapback’ on Iran was a long time coming

  • Under Donald Trump, the US abandoned the deal and sent US foreign policy spiralling. Is it any wonder the US snapback proposal was roundly rejected – by 13 of the 15 Security Council members within 24 hours?

August 20, 2020. That was the day the US Secretary of state Michael R. Pompeo swaggered up to a podium at the United Nations, proclaimed that up was down, unicorns were real, and that he could really go for some curry fish balls right about now.

I am, of course, exaggerating. But not by much. What Pompeo did was argue that the United States is legally entitled to enforce the technical provisions of an international agreement that it abandoned more than two years ago.

If that sounds confusing to you, it should. It is the political equivalent of quitting a job, not showing up to work for two years and insisting that you are entitled to your full salary because a contract once existed that listed you as an employee.

Signed in 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is a deal between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany on one side, and Iran on the other. This agreement includes strict monitoring and verification provisions that permanently cut off Iran’s ability to clandestinely develop nuclear weapons.

In exchange, all sanctions on Iran’s nuclear weapons-related activities were lifted, and Tehran received a pathway to rejoin the international community.

The deal received widespread international support and was considered a major foreign policy victory for the Obama administration. When Donald Trump took office in 2017, he set out to unravel his predecessor’s legacy, which included, against the advice of his own advisers and the pleas of the international community, the Iran nuclear deal.

On May 8, 2018, the Trump administration announced that it was “ceasing US participation” in the agreement and reimposing sanctions against Iran. Trump insisted that he would negotiate “ a better deal”, but two years later, no such deal has emerged.


Why can't Iran and the US get along?

Why can't Iran and the US get along?

Despite US withdrawal, the deal has remained alive. The remaining signatories have upheld the vast majority of their commitments and the parameters remain intact.

On October 18, the arms embargo on Iran is set to expire, a key provision of the agreement that is intended to reward Tehran for five years of compliance.

With no better deal in sight, and pressure on Iran evaporating before its eyes, the Trump administration finds itself face to face with the failures of its policymaking and no credible options for bringing Iran back to the negotiating table.

That brings us to today’s desperate attempt at nonsensical diplomacy. Under UN Security Resolution 2231, which underpins the nuclear deal, participant states are entitled to implement a “snapback” mechanism, which reimposes all UN sanctions if Iran is in breach of the deal. It is a powerful tool, and it is the mechanism that the US is attempting to leverage.

There is only one problem. The US is no longer a legal participant to the agreement. The Trump administration correctly pointed out that article 10 of resolution 2231 lists the US as a participant of the agreement. This was true when the agreement went into effect, but it is not true now. By the Trump administration’s own admission, it has fully ended its participation in the agreement.

Within hours of Pompeo’s appearance at the UN, some of America’s longest standing allies issued a joint statement rebuffing the attempt to activate the snapback mechanism. France, Germany and the UK noted that the US had ceased to be a participant to the agreement following its withdrawal from it on May 8. “We cannot therefore support this action,” the statement said.

Russia also rejected the US plans, calling them “non-existent” and “common sense mockery”.

China pushed back even harder, saying the US demand “has no legal ground and common sense”. It noted the US violated resolution 2231 by unilaterally withdrawing from the agreement and reinstating “illegal unilateral sanctions” against Iran. Having quit the agreement, the US has “no right to demand the Security Council invoke a snapback”.

Within 24 hours, 13 of the Security Council’s 15 members had rejected Washington’s bid to reimpose the international sanctions regime on Iran, a stunning defeat that the US rarely experiences at the UN.

This day was a long time coming. The last four years of US foreign policy has been the diplomatic equivalent of an out-of-control party, where the Trump administration has trashed your house, made out with your girlfriend and loudly proclaimed itself king to anyone who will listen.
The response from the international community is clear. “Go home America, you’re drunk. Hopefully, you’ll have slept it off by November 3.”

Will Saetren is a project lead at CRDF Global where he specialises in nuclear security