Six days after the Trump administration saw its effort to extend expiring U.N. weapons sanctions on Iran collapse in an embarrassing defeat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went to U.N. headquarters on Thursday to try again.
This time, Pompeo went even further, pushing for a reinstatement by the U.N. Security Council not just of the arms restrictions set to expire Oct. 18, but of all the Iran sanctions that were terminated five years ago by that 15-member body.
That suspension of sanctions was part of U.N. Resolution 2231, which endorses the multination agreement — known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — that restricts Iran's nuclear program.
Pompeo informed reporters that he had just delivered letters to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and the Security Council president, Indonesian Ambassador Dian Triansyah Djani. The notifications are meant to start the clock on restoring the punitive measures against Iran the United Nations lifted in January 2016.
"This process will lead to those sanctions coming back into effect 30 days from today," Pompeo declared. "Our message is very, very simple: The United States will never allow the world's largest state sponsor of terrorism to freely buy and sell planes, tanks, missiles and other kinds of conventional weapons."
In his letters to the U.N. leaders, Pompeo cited, among other "incontestable" examples of Iran's noncompliance with the nuclear agreement, Tehran's enrichment of uranium beyond the JCPOA's limit of 3.67%, its accumulation of an enriched uranium stockpile that exceeds 300 kilograms, and its accumulation of "excess" heavy water.
With those missives, Pompeo has invoked for the first time what's known as a "snapback."
It's a provision in the U.N. resolution stipulating that if any "JCPOA participant State" notifies the Security Council of significant violations of the nuclear deal by Iran, the sanctions lifted in January 2016 will automatically be reimposed within 30 days unless the council passes a resolution in opposition.
The Trump administration, however, withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018 and then unilaterally reimposed sanctions as part of what it called a "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran.
Stepping up to the same podium where Pompeo had just spoken, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations declared the U.S. had disqualified itself from invoking any snapback by pulling out of the nuclear deal.
"The U.S. is not a participant of the JCPOA and has no right to trigger the so-called snapback mechanism, and its arbitrary interpretation of resolution 2231 cannot change this reality," Iranian Ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi said. "We are of the firm conviction that the letter sent by the U.S. today to the Security Council's president and all the references therein is null and void and has no legal standing."
The Iranian envoy pointed to the council's Aug. 14 vote, in which only the Dominican Republic supported the U.S. push for extending the arms embargo against Iran, as showing scant desire to back Pompeo's demand for a snapback of sanctions.
"It was a disaster. It was really something that the U.S. should have avoided because that was a clear case of isolation at the international level," Ravanchi said of the vote's tally of two in favor, two against and 11 abstentions. "So the permanent member of the Security Council is acting like a child who is being ridiculed by the other members of the international community."
Pompeo, for his part, thanked the Dominican Republic for standing with the U.S. in that vote and said Germany, France and the United Kingdom — all three members of the Security Council and signatories to the JCPOA — had assured him privately that, despite their own abstentions, they did not want to see the arms embargo against Iran expire.
"And yet today, in the end, they provided no alternatives, no options," Pompeo said of Washington's three European allies. "Instead, they chose to side with the ayatollahs. Their actions endanger the people of Iraq, of Yemen, of Lebanon, Syria and indeed their own citizens as well."
Pompeo insisted the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal has no bearing on its status as a participant in what he called "a political agreement" and that what matters is the language in the U.N. resolution.
"It says this set of states has the right to execute snapback. That's not conditioned on any other activity," Pompeo explained. "It doesn't require compliance. It just says these countries can execute snapback. It's very plain. It's very simple."
Other key members of the Security Council disagreed. One of Russia's top diplomats on Thursday called the U.S. push to reimpose sanctions on Iran "absurd."
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted by Reuters as telling Russian news agencies that the U.S. has no legal or political grounds to reimpose sanctions and that attempting to do so would lead to a Security Council crisis.
And the foreign ministers of the three European nations on the council declared in a joint statement sent to NPR that they too oppose Washington's claimed right to invoke a snapback of sanctions.
"France, Germany and the United Kingdom note that the US ceased to be a participant to the JCPOA following their withdrawal from the deal on May 8, 2018," the trio of foreign ministers wrote after Pompeo's presentation at the United Nations of the letters meant to initiate the snapback process. "We cannot therefore support this action which is incompatible with our current efforts to support the JCPOA."
Even John Bolton, the former national security adviser who had urged President Trump to quit the nuclear deal, endorsed the contention by the agreement's backers that the U.S. lacks legal standing after having withdrawn from the deal.
"They're right," Bolton wrote Sunday in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. "It's too cute by half to say we're in the nuclear deal for purposes we want but not for those we don't. That alone is sufficient reason not to trigger the snapback process."
One expert on U.N. Security Council procedures noted that a resolution calling for the continued lifting of U.N. sanctions on Iran would likely be introduced in the next 30 days, and that it could be vetoed by the United States.
"You can have a resolution — it's just never acted on," said Columbia Law School adjunct professor Larry Johnson, a former assistant secretary-general for legal affairs at the United Nations. "Every meeting begins with, 'Here is the proposed provisional agenda,' and that has to be adopted by nine yes votes. So if they don't adopt it, the meeting ends and that's the end of it. Finished."
Or, Johnson added, the Security Council could avoid a U.S. veto of a resolution extending the sanctions relief by considering a vote on the matter procedural — and procedural votes by the council "are not subject to a veto."
But America's top diplomat is confident the U.N.'s suspended sanctions against Iran will soon snap back.
"These U.N. Security Council resolutions will come back into place 31 days from now," Pompeo predicted to reporters Thursday, "and the United States will vigorously enforce them."