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The US Gamble to Extend the Iran Arms Ban Fails. What’s Next?

In New York City at the UN, Ambassador Kelly Craft with Talal Alhaj of Al Arabiya TV, Aug. 11, 2020, discussing the US effort to extend the Iran arms ban. Craft tweeted: “Allowing Iran to gain access to new, more powerful weapons would only fuel new terror, chaos & bloodshed in the region & beyond. The choice for the UNSC should be obvious.”

Doomed from the start, the United States asked the 14 other United Nations Security Council members to approve a resolution to extend an arms embargo on Iran that expires on Oct. 18. The embargo is part of the Security Council resolution adopted in 2015 that endorsed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.

The final vote on the resolution was 11 abstentions, two negative votes, from Russia and China, and two positive votes — from the US and the Dominican Republic. But the scenario was clear to Washington when it circulated its first iteration of a draft resolution weeks ago and then submitted a final version consisting of only four paragraphs. The US has imposed harsh sanctions on Iran after President Trump denounced the JCPOA as “a horrible one-sided deal.” He declared in May 2018 that the US was withdrawing from the pact.

Germany, Britain and France, who worked as a group, abstained on the resolution, saying more consultations were needed for a measure that would be acceptable to all Council members. But the three clarified, in separate statements, that while they objected to many of Iran’s actions in the Middle East, they remained committed to the Iran nuclear deal. The JCPOA was not mentioned in the American draft resolution. (The other countries that abstained were Belgium, Estonia, Indonesia, Niger, Saint Vincent and the Grenadies, South Africa, Tunisia and Vietnam.)

The failed resolution is likely to prompt the US to trigger an element in the Iran nuclear deal that would reimpose UN sanctions against Iran. The “snapback” mechanism has never been used by the Security Council, as it is unique to the Iran deal, and no one is fully clear about its application. Legally, the remaining parties to the Iran agreement say the US has no right to use the mechanism, but the US will go ahead and try anyway.

The rejection of US attempts to extend the ban was also obvious to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when the 15-nation Council held a virtual debate on the issue on June 15. No one supported Washington’s move, even though European members of the Council do not want the embargo to expire. But singling it out of the complicated Iran nuclear deal left little room for the Council to renegotiate other elements of the pact, diplomats said, and the remaining parties to the deal have only entrenched their positions in the last month.

Locating a compromise among the US, China-Russia and the “E3” — Britain, France and Germany — has been a “hard job so far,” one senior Council diplomat said.

Once the US walked away from the JCPOA, the remaining parties — the five above — have vehemently contested the legal right of the US to be involved in the deal. As one Council member that is not a party to the deal and abstained in the vote, put it, when you sign an agreement you must respect it.

This week, with the 15 Security Council members laboriously exchanging emails rather than meeting in person and tweeting to convey messages, the US sought support for its initial seven-page resolution that not only extended the arms embargo but also authorized members to inspect vessels and called for a travel ban and an asset freeze. Realizing there was no support for these expansions of the agreement, Washington circulated the four-paragraph draft on Aug. 11, extending weapons restrictions “until the Security Council decides otherwise.”

Ambassador Kelly Craft of the US tweeted: “I call on all Security Council members to wake up to the real-world implications of allowing the arms embargo to lapse. The UNSC’s purpose is to promote global peace & security. Failure to extend the arms embargo would make a mockery of that responsibility.”

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The mini-version also did not receive backing from many countries, who felt that the open-ended nature of the restrictions would not fly, especially with China and Russia. The US claims these two countries are ready to start selling conventional weapons en masse to Iran, giving the regime more ammunition to increase violence in the region.

A Security Council resolution requires at least nine votes in favor and no veto from its permanent members: Britain, China, France, Russia and the US.

So why has Pompeo pushed for a resolution he knew from the June 30 debate, if not much earlier, would not be adopted? The aim was to lay the groundwork for the “snapback” mechanism to be used, as defined in Security Council Resolution 2231.

The resolution stipulates that any concerned party to the JCPOA can notify the Council about an issue that it considers a significant violation of the agreement. The sanctions in place before the adoption of the resolution would then take effect 30 days after the notification, unless the Council takes other action. Another possible strategy to delay action on the snapback element is for a Council member to debate whether the US can even technically invoke it.

“We have the capacity to execute snapback, and we’re going to use it in a way that protects and defends America,” Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations committee on June 30.

This position opens up a murky legal controversy. The US is arguing that despite Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal, it is legally still a participant state because of a vote in the US Security Council by Ambassador Samantha Power in 2015, representing the US. The Council voted unanimously that year to endorse the nuclear deal and its provisions.

The dispute could last through September, while Niger is president of the Council and before Russia assumes the presidency in October. (The August presidency is held by Indonesia.)

One senior Council diplomat said the US left the deal in May 2018 but now wants to use a provision in the agreement to trigger the snapback. “You cannot have the cake and eat it too,” he told reporters.

The French envoy to the UN’s tweet on Aug. 14; at the bottom, he added, “Destroying the only existing framework to curb its nuclear ambitions would just give Iran a license to proliferate.”

According to US officials, Washington still has the right to invoke the snapback procedure, which includes a ban on Iran’s conventional arms and a ban on support for Tehran’s missile program, a prohibition on testing nuclear-capable missiles and a halt to all plutonium enrichment-related activities

The Trump administration has steadily increased sanctions against Iran since May 2018, especially its ability to sell oil. It has also punished nations dealing with Iran or has threatened to do so, including Europeans. In turn, Tehran has increased uranium enrichment beyond agreed-on limits, although it says this is reversible.

Iran appears to have refrained from further provocations, presumably anticipating the Nov. 3 US election that may end the Trump regime.

Meanwhile, on Aug. 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed a video summit with the US, Britain, France, China, Germany and Iran to avoid “confrontation and escalation” at the UN. None of the parties have responded yet, and it raises even more questions, such as: Would Trump view such a meeting as a potential re-election gain or detriment?

Dulcie Leimbach contributed reporting to this article. 

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Evelyn Leopold is a veteran United Nations reporter since 1990. She was a Reuters correspondent for 40 years and now freelances for a variety of publications. She has served in Britain, Germany and Kenya and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Overseas Press Club and the Newswomen’s Club of New York. She is chair of the Dag Hammarskjöld Fund for Journalists, was awarded a gold medal in reporting by the UN Correspondents Association and co-authored a book on women in the former East Germany.

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