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US declares return of UN sanctions on Iran despite opposition from allies

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attends the UN Security Council meeting on Iran at the United Nations, in New York City on December 12, 2018. (Ron Przysucha/State Department)
September 20, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The United States has unilaterally reimposed all UN sanctions against Iran, despite opposition from Washington’s closest European allies and uncertainty over their impact.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on September 19 announced the so-called snapback of UN sanctions on Iran, threatening U.S. action against any violators.

“If UN Member States fail to fulfill their obligations to implement these sanctions, the United States is prepared to use our domestic authorities to impose consequences for those failures and ensure that Iran does not reap the benefits of UN-prohibited activity,” Pompeo said in a statement.

“In the coming days, the United States will announce a range of additional measures to strengthen implementation of UN sanctions and hold violators accountable,” he added.

The U.S. move sets the stage for a major clash at the United Nations, where Washington finds itself increasingly isolated amid tensions with both Iran and other parties to the 2015 nuclear accord, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA).

“The Americans as a rule act as a bully and impose sanction…The world community should decide how to act towards bullying,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Iranian state television hours before the U.S. announcement.

President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018 and reimposed U.S. sanctions on Iran, prompting Tehran to progressively infringe on its nuclear commitments as part of calibrated response to the absence of expected economic benefits from the JCPOA.

The remaining parties to the Iran nuclear deal have tried to save the faltering agreement, rejecting an attempt by Washington to trigger a return of UN sanctions on Tehran over its infringement of its nuclear commitments.

Ahead of the U.S. announcement, Britain, France, and Germany said in a letter to the UN Security Council that international sanctions relief for Iran would continue beyond September 20.

“We have worked tirelessly to preserve the nuclear agreement and remain committed to do so,” the UN envoys for the three countries said in a letter to the UN Security Council on September 18.

China and Russia, veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council and parties to the nuclear accord, have similarly rebuffed U.S. attempts to bring back international sanctions.

In an embarrassing diplomatic blow, the United States in mid-August suffered overwhelming defeat at the UN Security Council when it tried to extend an international arms embargo on Iran that is set to gradually expire on October 18 under the terms of the Iran nuclear deal.

After that setback, the United States on August 20 formally began a 30-day process at the UN to trigger the return of international sanctions on Iran under a snapback provision in the Iran nuclear accord.

But the UN Security Council overwhelming rejected the United States’ claim it remains a “participant” in the nuclear deal because it was listed as such in UN Security Council Resolution 2231 that enshrined the deal.

Under the terms of Resolution 2231, if the Security Council does not pass a new resolution confirming the continuation of the sanction relief within 30 days, the sanctions automatically return into force.

The U.S. bid to bring back UN sanctions casts uncertainty and confusion over the future of the nuclear deal and sanctions.

The International Crisis Group wrote in a recent analysis that the UN Security Council and diplomats are “likely to get bogged down in inconclusive debates” on technicalities.

“There is no individual or entity in the UN system that can rule on whether the U.S. snapback gambit has or lacks merit,” the conflict prevention group said. “For now, it is a political and diplomatic issue rather than a neat legal determination.”

Britain, France, and Germany have expressed worries about the end of the arms embargo on Iran but have opposed U.S. action out of concern it would kill what is left of the nuclear deal and delegitimize the UN Security Council.

Meanwhile, U.S. allies in Europe and Iran appear to be trying to wait out the Trump administration, calculating that former Vice President Joe Biden will win the November presidential election and deescalate tensions with Iran.

Iran has threatened to completely exit the JCPOA and hinted it will pull out of another key nonproliferation treaty if the arms embargo is extended or there is a snapback of sanctions.