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The US Plans to Prolong the Iran Arms Ban Through the UN, Where It Has Few Friends

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Israel on May 13 2020
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Israel, May 13, 2020. He says the US plans to extend the arms embargo in the Iran nuclear deal, but it must go through the UN Security Council to do so. Members appear ready to push back. RON PRZYSUCHA/STATE DEPARTMENT

The Trump administration may be bound and determined to extend a tight global arms embargo on Iran, but it still can’t send a straight message about how it will do so through the United Nations Security Council. The embargo, embedded in a Council resolution endorsing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, expires in October.

While the United States argues that no European member of the Security Council would want to see arms sales flow openly to Iran, suspicion abounds that the broader goal of the US is to shred the last vestige of the international six-party agreement preventing Iran from building nuclear weapons.

Yet the goal of killing the Iran nuclear deal provokes questions that no one seems capable of answering — including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — as to what happens after the deal’s death. Will it actually make Americans and the rest of the world safer?

The parties to the Iran nuclear deal, endorsed in Resolution 2231, are still four of the five permanent members of the Security Council: Britain, China, France and Russia. The US left it in May 2018. Germany is also a party to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, which was designed to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons development.

In successive messaging, the US in the last month has said it is working with its “partners” in the Council — naming Germany, France and Britain as well as Russia and China — to ensure the embargo does not get lifted.

Iran’s response to the US plan went right for the jugular: President Hassan Rouhani warned of a “crushing response” if the US goes ahead with the proposal.

But as the weeks tick by since the US announced its objective and several European nations lead the rotating presidencies of the Council in the next months — Estonia, France and Germany — its members may be more than ready to contend with the Trump administration’s pursuits or bluffs.

The rhetoric from the US on the Iran deal intensified last week as Trump’s popularity among Americans keeps dropping. At least 92,000 cases of coronavirus deaths have been confirmed in the US as of May 20, the highest by far globally. It is a gruesome statistic that Trump is ignoring, taking no responsibility for the incredible death toll of Americans as he charges ahead in his re-election campaign till November.

Despite what Pompeo and his Iran envoy, Brian Hook, have said about the US talking to their “partners” in the Council, it appears that no negotiations are occurring. One media report suggested the US might approach Niger, a West African country dependent on US aid, to usher a resolution through the Council when Niger is president of it in September. That strategy would surely rankle France, which is a top trader for Niger in the continent.

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On April 30, Pompeo said about the embargo plan, “We are working with our Chinese, our Russian, our British, our French, our partners on the Security Council to make sure — and even more broadly throughout the UN to make sure that they’re all on board in preventing this from happening coming October 18th of this year.”

The next day, he revised his list, saying: “We’re working with our British, our French partners, our friends, saying you all know this doesn’t make sense either. I think they agree with us on that. We hope the Russians and the Chinese will see it that way, too.”

Meanwhile, the US suddenly rejected a long-negotiated Council resolution on Covid-19 that was almost ready to be voted on in early May. The shift shocked Council members across the spectrum, aggravating more tensions in the UN body, especially between China and the US.

A new, slimmer version of the resolution, which doesn’t mention the World Health Organization or any UN entity, has not won much love. Many Council members still prefer the earlier French-Tunisian version, except for the US, and renewed discussions on that draft will be held in a closed meeting on May 21, according to a diplomat.

Pompeo will gamble on another plan if the US doesn’t get its way on the arms issue: triggering the snapback provision in the Iran deal. That lever would enable any of its participants to reimpose all UN sanctions, ending the JCPOA and Iran’s cooperation completely.

That goal appears to be the jackpot the US wants to win by October, when Russia holds the Council presidency and cooperation could be nil between the US and Russia. But parties to the Iran deal are saying that the US is no longer a “participant” to the JCPOA, after it walked away from it two years ago.

As Russia’s UN ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, told reporters recently: “This is ridiculous. They are not members, they have no right to trigger.”

China chimed in, tweeting on May 14: “US failed to meet its obligations under Resolution 2231 by withdrawing from #JCPOA. It has no right to extend an arms embargo on Iran, let alone to trigger snapback. Maintaining JCPOA is the only right way moving forward.”

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee in the US presidential election, tweeted his sentiments on May 8: “Two years ago, Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran Deal. This week, he vetoed a war powers resolution that would’ve prevented him from starting a war with Iran without Congressional consent. His decisions have increased the risk of war in the Middle East.”

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As the US has been demonstrating, its erratic response to the pandemic — from withholding funding to the World Health Organization temporarily to vowing to stop financing it permanently — make the Trump administration look more irrational each day. That is the case this week, too, as Pompeo lands in hot water for arranging to have an inspector general fired for no obvious reasons.

A Security Council resolution extending the arms embargo would require 9 yes votes among the 15 members and no veto from a permanent member, including the US. Russia has scoffed at the idea of agreeing to the ban, with Nebenzia saying on May 12: “I never answer questions before the right time comes, but you may make a wild guess . . . I do not see any reason why an arms embargo should be imposed on Iran.”

The legal question that will not vanish either is whether the US, having been an original “participant,” can still activate the snapback mechanism even after its 2018 withdrawal from the JCPOA. No party to the JCPOA, including the Iranians themselves, has publicly accepted the logic posed by Pompeo and Hook that the US doesn’t need to be a participant to legitimately alter the deal.

In addition, the issue nobody is saying out loud is how can Iran afford to buy weapons, given its drastic economy, one Washington expert noted to PassBlue. “That makes the strategic value of the US plan limited,” said Kenneth Katzman, a senior analyst of Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Persian Gulf Affairs at the Congressional Research Service.

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s ambassador to International Organizations in Vienna, said of the coziest Council member to the US: I don’t see any reasons why the British would pull the chestnuts out of fire for the Americans and assume the responsibility for the demise of JCPOA.”

Council members pretty much agree that Iran has violated the JCPOA, and it’s a long road to trigger the snapback, a complex mechanism that the French originated in the nuclear deal’s negotiations. Which is one reason the US is placing its bets months ahead to succeed.

Jarret Blanc, a former US official who was responsible for carrying out the JCPOA for the State Department, wrote in Responsible Statecraft that the real motive behind Pompeo’s plan is Joe Biden.

“Iran hawks have dreamed of a ‘sanctions wall’ that would prevent any Democratic president from returning to the Iran deal, but clever European diplomacy and careful moves from Tehran have kept the deal on life support,” Blanc wrote.

Pompeo does not seem confident that Trump will be re-elected, he added. “While his political consultant advises Republican senate candidates ‘don’t defend Trump’ on his response to the coronavirus, Pompeo is spending his time pretending the U.S. is still part of the Iran nuclear deal at the United Nations in a bad faith and costly effort which may be a sneaky way to limit a future President Biden’s options for return to the agreement.”

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Risks to the US gamble on killing the Iran deal are enormous, Blanc said. “Snapback may actually accelerate the arms sales that matter most. The embargo does not cover surface-to-air missiles, the weapons systems that can do the most damage to U.S. military superiority over Iran.”

Neither Pompeo nor Hook has elaborated on the US strategy after the JCPOA keels over. Instead, they keep focusing on the here and now, talking as if Security Council members will welcome them when they come knocking.

Then again, the US intent could be worse than any Council member cares to admit: “further weakening the UNSC,” as Gérard Araud, France’s former ambassador to the UN and to Washington, tweeted, referring to the Security Council.

“Maybe that’s the real goal of this sad farce.”

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Dulcie Leimbach is the founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal) as well as from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, NHK’s English channel and Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. She has also worked as an editorial consultant to various UN agencies. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver before she worked in New York at Esquire magazine and Adweek. In between, she was a Wall Street foreign-exchange dealer. Leimbach has been a fellow at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and was a guest lecturer at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina.

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