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The Iran Nuclear Deal: What’s the US Going to Do Next?


Secretary of State Pompeo with the United States envoy to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, about to meet with the Security Council president, Dian Triansyah Djani, in August at the UN in New York City. The US entourage was delivering a letter saying the US was triggering the snapback in the Iran nuclear deal. RON PRZYSUCHA/STATE DEPARTMENT

The Trump administration has attempted to trigger a 30-day-clock on extending an arms embargo on Iran that expires on Oct. 18. But the United States position, aimed at mandating all United Nations members to follow its lead, is opposed by most of the world.

The embargo is part of Security Council Resolution 2231, adopted in 2015, that endorsed a nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), to prevent Iran from developing an atomic bomb. The pact took two years of intensive negotiations to complete and it occurred under the Obama administration.

Despite widespread opposition, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo initiated the so-called “snapback” procedure, which is to come into force on Sept. 20, 2020, but there is little chance it will get support in the Security Council. Still, he argues that the US, due to Ambassador Samantha Power’s vote in 2015, was a participant in Resolution 2231, even though President Donald Trump in 2018 declared he “was terminating US participation.”

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The “snapback” mechanism is unique and allows one of the participants to the original nuclear deal to reimpose all UN sanctions the JCPOA lifted or eased.

Among the five permanent members of the 15-seat Security Council, four oppose the US position — Russia, China, France and Britain. Among the 10 elected members, only the Dominican Republic supports Washington on the arms-embargo extension. Those against include Belgium, Estonia, Indonesia, Niger, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, South Africa, Tunisia, Vietnam and Germany, one the original participants in the JCPOA. The three European parties to the deal — Germany, Britain and France — may reaffirm their position this week that the US cannot trigger the snapback, two diplomats told PassBlue.

So what will happen on Sept. 20? Nothing official at the UN or in the prestigious Security Council, which could take binding action on all UN members. But the US can initiate secondary sanctions against any country dealing with Iran, such as firms that would supply Iran with weapons or buy its oil. With the dollar as the world’s standard currency, Washington can also take monetary action against nations violating its unilateral sanctions.

The European group in the UN Security Council has proposed a dialogue aimed at reaching a compromise that all 15 Council members can support, which so far has failed to find a unified position. They also note that the European Union has its own arms embargo against Iran, but they say the American rejection of any kind of UN-approved nuclear deal makes it nigh impossible to negotiate with Washington at this time, in the run-up to the presidential election on Nov. 3

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In a joint statement, “France, Germany and the United Kingdom note that the United States ceased to participate in the JCPOA after its withdrawal from the agreement on May 8, 2018.” It added: “We therefore cannot support this action which is incompatible with our current efforts to support the JCPOA.”

“We will not make fools of ourselves,” one European diplomat told reporters.

In response, Pompeo told reporters: “No country but the United States has had the courage and conviction to put forward a resolution. Instead, they [other delegations] chose to side with the ayatollahs,” he said after formally starting the process on Aug. 20, when he presented a letter to the Security Council and to Secretary-General António Guterres, declaring that the US was triggering the snapback.

The US has heaped so many sanctions on Iran that the country has little money to buy weapons. Washington recently placed secondary sanctions on firms in China and the United Arab Emirates for buying Iranian oil. But no one knows what its proxy militia in Iran and other places might do.

Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency, in a recent report obtained by Stephanie Liechtenstein for PassBlue, said Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium continues to grow and exceeds the limit set by the nuclear deal. Yet, the stockpile is still far below the amount Iran had accumulated before the JCPOA. Iran is also allowing IAEA inspectors back into two suspected nuclear sites.

While all eyes are riveted on Iran’s nuclear ability, some US and allied officials are concerned that Saudi Arabia is moving ahead with its own nascent nuclear program and may be keeping its options open on developing nuclear arms, The New York Times reported. The White House also recently has made clear it wants to sell weapons to the United Arab Emirates, including F-35 stealth fighters.

The US has found fault with numerous UN agencies and programs, and the Iran nuclear deal is no exception to Trump’s pouring scorn on actions by former President Obama. Besides the nuclear deal, Trump has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord, the World Health Organization, the UN Human Rights Council and Unesco. Recently, the administration placed an asset freeze and a family entrance ban on Fatou Bensouda, the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, and a top aide. The US has never joined the court.

Trump may come to the UN General Assembly opening session to speak on Sept. 21, marking the UN’s 75th birthday, or the 22nd or both. For now, he may be the only world leader to show up physically for the virtual debate, given that the US told UN member states that anyone who wanted to come had to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arriving in New York City. Vladimir Putin of Russia has announced he is staying home; same for Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil.


This article was updated to reflect the stance of the Dominican Republic: It supports the US effort to extend the arms embargo but has not publicly stated its position on whether the US has triggered the snapback in the Iran deal.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

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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