U.S. President Donald Trump said he would call on the United Nations Security Council to restore all nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, an attempt to kill off the 2015 nuclear agreement and force Tehran back to the negotiating table.
“Mark it down, Iran will never have a nuclear weapon,” Trump said at a White House news conference on Wednesday. “We paid a fortune for a failed concept, a failed policy that would have made it impossible to have peace in the Middle East.”
The move will set the Trump administration on a collision course with other world powers, including key allies, who say the U.S. doesn’t have the authority to reimpose international sanctions and that they won’t go along. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will formally propose the “snap back” of sanctions at the U.N. on Thursday.
While many nations are wary of Iran, the U.S. has been almost totally isolated at the U.N. in its most recent efforts to raise pressure on the Islamic Republic, abandoned by even close allies such as France and the U.K.
An effort last week to indefinitely extend an expiring, 13-year-old arms embargo on Iran was defeated in historic fashion: 11 members of the Security Council abstained, with just the Dominican Republic joining the U.S. as China and Russia vetoed the measure.
The U.S. State Department referenced that rebuke in a statement after Trump spoke on Wednesday.
“Secretary Pompeo’s notification to the Council follows its inexcusable failure last week to extend the arms embargo on the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and anti-Semitism,” according to the statement. It added that the snapback would extend the arms embargo by default.
Since taking office, the Trump administration has used increasingly tough sanctions and diplomatic pressure to try to convince European allies to quit the 2015 nuclear deal, saying Iran used the revenue it got from eased sanctions to finance conflicts from Syria to Yemen without permanently ending Tehran’s ambitions for a nuclear weapon.
The president long called the agreement reached during the Obama administration the “worst deal ever.”
Trump has repeatedly said he believes that ending the deal under tough restrictions will convince Iran’s leaders to enter talks on a bigger, better accord that will help foster peace across the entire Middle East.
The sanctions did deal a crippling economic blow to Tehran. European allies supportive of the nuclear deal struggled to find a way around the U.S. restrictions, depriving Iran of investment and causing its currency to plunge and widespread shortages of basic goods. But President Hassan Rouhani’s government stood firm and repeatedly ruled out any talks while under the force of what they called “blackmail.”
Under the unique snapback process outlined in the 2015 nuclear deal, once the U.S. submits its complaint, the Security Council has 30 days to vote on a resolution to continue Iran’s sanctions relief, a move the U.S. could then proceed to veto. If such a resolution is not adopted, U.N. sanctions that were eased in return for constraints on Iran’s nuclear program would theoretically be restored, effectively killing the Iran nuclear deal.
“Any U.S. attempt to reimpose sanctions will be controversial, given the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and likely to create deadlock at the Security Council,” International Crisis Group analysts wrote in a report on Wednesday. “The administration’s goal is clear: Kill the deal or make it that much harder for a successor administration to rejoin it.”
The process, as enshrined in a U.N. resolution, appears straightforward, but every other party to the multinational deal, including America’s European allies, say the U.S. can’t invoke the process from an accord it already quit. They argue that snapback was a right given to the deal’s participants, and since the U.S. said it is no longer a part of the accord, its move will be seen as invalid.
Europe will not “support unilateral proposals leading to the return of sanctions,” French Ambassador Nicolas de Riviere said in June. “They would only deepen divisions in the Security Council and beyond and would not be likely to improve the situation on the ground of nuclear nonproliferation.”
Yet the U.S. has a different legal interpretation, arguing that UN Resolution 2231 lists the U.S. as a participant for purposes of snapping back sanctions.
The resolution describes the U.S. as a participant of the nuclear agreement and “includes no provision for altering that definition based on the future behavior or activities of the defined parties,” Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which has helped guide the Trump administration’s Iran sanctions policies, wrote. “Therefore, the United States remains” a participant “in perpetuity, as defined by” the resolution, he added.
Pompeo vowed to hold countries like Russia and China accountable if they refuse to go along with the U.S. declaration that the nuclear deal is void and, instead, move ahead with sales of advanced weapons to Iran once the arms embargo expires in October.
“Absolutely,” Pompeo said Wednesday when asked in a Fox News interview whether the U.S. would sanction those countries. “We’ve already done that when we see any country violate our current sanctions, the current American sanctions, we’ve held every nation accountable for that. We’ll do the same thing with respect to the broader U.N. Security Council sanctions as well.”
Supporters of the agreement say it took Iran off a path toward nuclear weapons, but since the day it was reached critics said the deal provided the Tehran government with economic benefits in the short-term without any long-term guarantee that the nation wouldn’t eventually decide to restart its nuclear program.
In the years after the accord was reached, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency repeatedly affirmed that the Iranians were abiding by the accord. But after the U.S. quit the deal and began reimposing sanctions, Iran starting abandoning parts of the agreement, stockpiling enriched uranium beyond agreed upon levels but saying it would reverse course if the U.S. returned to the accord.
The dispute between the U.S. and the rest of the permanent members of the Security Council could plunge the body into a crisis with no clear path toward a resolution.
“It will be one of the worst crises to face the U.N. Security Council in a generation because the council will be hopelessly divided, without any clarity on how to move forward,” said Richard Nephew, who was the lead sanctions expert for the Obama administration team that negotiated the accord.