With the Security Council’s unanimous vote to expand United Nations sanctions on North Korea on Dec. 22, President Trump appeared to add another high point to a victorious final week of 2017 based on his tax reform in United States Congress. But appearances deceive, as delegations’ statements in the Council demonstrated before adopting Resolution 2397 and, less than a week ago, during the Council’s “emergency” meeting called by the United States over the unrest in Iran.
At both Council sessions, 14 of the 15 members showed vigilance against the trumped-up rhetoric of Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, and their readiness to deliver a series of humiliating defeats to the Trump administration early in the new year.
These defeats to US policy may occur soon. Trump must decide on Jan. 12, based on a Congressional mandate, whether to certify Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. On Jan. 14, another deadline looms when the Trump administration must decide whether to continue to waive economic sanctions against Iran.
The Security Council has already shown skilled determination to protect international peace and security against Trump’s truculence. During the discussion on the North Korea resolution on Dec. 22, most countries in the Council ignored US claims that North Korea presents an immediate threat to global peace and security. But they navigated a fine line between agreeing with the US’s technical charge against North Korea’s violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty while opposing talk of armed intervention.
“There is no military solution to the crisis on the Korean Peninsula,” said Bermúdez Álvarez, the deputy permanent representative to Uruguay, in his speech. His Chinese counterpart, Wu Haitao, emphasized that “the nuclear issue should be solved peacefully by addressing the security concerns of all parties” and reiterated with Russia a “road map towards the peaceful settlement of the issue.”
Similar sentiments were expressed outside the Council, around the world. The Hindu, an influential Indian paper, observed that there “is no reason why other big powers should not pursue the diplomatic effort with redoubled energy.”
Evidently, such determined guidance wasn’t heard by Washington hard-liners like Edward Luttwak, the military strategist who observed earlier this week in his Foreign Policy column, “It’s Time to Bomb North Korea.” Warmongers seem to be outwitted already, after the successful launching of an inter-Korean mediation that began this week by Ri Son Gwon, chairman of North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea.
With his counterpart in South Korea, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-Gyon, Ri achieved three agreements: North Korea’s participation at the Pyongyang Winter Olympic Games and Winter Paralympic Games; the initiation of separate “military talks”; and a principled commitment to settle all North-South issues through dialogue and negotiation. Graciously, South Korean President Moon Jae-In credited at a press conference in Seoul President Trump “for bringing about the inter-Korean talks.”
The irony, however, is not lost on the Security Council that the two Koreas engage diplomatically — as the Council has urged — while the US policy shift announced on Dec. 14 in the chamber by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that a “sustained cessation of North Korea’s threatening behavior must occur before talks can begin” is no longer relevant.
A similar rebuke of US policies is unfolding regarding Iran. Nikki Haley attempted during the Jan. 5 special meeting in the Council to get her colleagues to invoke Article 34 of the UN Charter over the harsh reaction of Iran’s security forces against protesters when she said, “Member States cannot use sovereignty as a shield when they categorically deny their people human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Her British counterpart, Matthew Rycroft, seemed to echo this sentiment when he spelled out that the Council is “empowered through Article 34,” but added the qualifier of the Article: “. . . to investigate any dispute that might give rise to international friction.”
Despite Haley’s strenuous efforts, no factual basis has emerged for “international friction” from Iran’s crackdown by its police and the elite Revolutionary Guards against protesters. She did spin an impressive tale of how the protesters were standing up against their government’s support of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, unspecified terrorists and pervasive corruption that mainly benefits companies affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard. While each point may have some basis in reality, none of them were enough to persuade other Council members to go along with Haley.
That includes Kuwait’s ambassador, Mansour Al-Otaibi, who asserted his country’s interest in maintaining “good-neighborly relations, mutual respect, common interests and noninterference in internal affairs,” while Bolivia’s deputy ambassador, Pedro Inchauste Jordán, rejected “unilateral action, political interventionism and regime change.”
François Delattre, the French ambassador, and a fellow permanent Council member like the US, countered Haley most openly when he remarked, “However worrying the recent events were, they did not constitute a threat to international peace and security.”
The strengthening front against US policies being pushed into the Council is led by the fear of America’s ability to leverage its own sanctions, economic warfare and armed intervention on the back of weakened UN sanctions. Today, no Council member wishes to repeat the disastrous commingling of UN and US sanctions that occurred in Iraq or Libya and that emboldened skeptics and undermined the UN sanctions system.
Yet, the Trump administration seems deaf to multilateral diplomacy and sanctions, preferring to nurse Cold War grudges. With North Korea, this means extending 67 years of crippling economic warfare that began early in the Korean War and pushing to couple UN sanctions with unilateral US economic warfare, shadowed by an armada of US warships with nuclear warheads to the Korean peninsula.
With Iran, the US is now extending its animosity that began with the US-backed overthrow of duly elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 and the insertion of Western oil companies and a shady shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Since then, relations have spiraled from bad to worse, with President Jimmy Carter placing the first US sanctions on Iran after the shah was forced into exile. Followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini then seized control of the US embassy in Tehran and unleashed their own version of human-rights violations.
They served as justification for the US to back Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran in the 1990s, which in turn clarified for the Iranian leadership the need for a more powerful self-defense, including the development of nuclear arms.
Squandering the important reset opportunity presented by the Iran nuclear agreement and eschewing international consensus for a mediated solution with North Korea, Trump’s foreign policy team prefers to risk not only the support of the other 14 members of Security Council. If the US soon resumes sanctions against Iran without internationally agreed evidence of Iran’s noncompliance with the JCPOA, it will also violate the nuclear deal.
Such a move will create a standoff in the Council and almost certainly further isolate the US from even its closest allies, Britain and France.