Foreign Policy | Keith Johnson, Colum Lynch: The battle between the United States and the remaining parties to the Iran nuclear deal is heating up, with huge stakes not just for the survival of the near-moribund accord but for the entire future of the U.N. Security Council and its ability to rein in bad actors.
Two years after unilaterally pulling out of the 2015 Iran deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Trump administration is dialing up efforts to kill it completely—even though Washington appears to have no alternative plan for addressing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions beyond sanctions. U.S. officials have been pushing the remaining parties, besides Iran—the European Union, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China—to extend a U.N. arms embargo that otherwise will expire in October, just weeks before a hotly contested U.S. presidential election. The end of that arms embargo, five years after the nuclear deal went into effect, was one of the selling points of the deal for Iran in the first place.
But now, arguing that Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region make it too risky to allow unfettered arms sales to Tehran, Washington is threatening to force the issue and trigger an automatic “snapback” of all U.N. sanctions on Iran, placing it in direct confrontation with European allies as well as Russia, China, and Iran, which want to keep the nuclear pact alive.
This week, the major remaining parties have become increasingly vocal in their rejections of U.S. pretensions to still be involved in the JCPOA at all. On Monday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry called the U.S withdrawal from the accord the “root cause” of the current crisis, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the United Nations that American efforts to simultaneously leave the deal and try to determine its future are “ridiculous and irresponsible.”
On Tuesday, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, Josep Borrell, attacked U.S. insistence that, even though it left the 2015 pact, it was still somehow a participant with a voice in its future. “They withdraw. It’s clear. They withdraw,” Borrell told reporters. On Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called on Russia and China, both permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, to take steps to block any U.S. efforts to blow up a pact it hasn’t been party to for more than two years.
“This has been brewing for several months, and now all the dirty laundry is coming into the public eye,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
Iran has warned that it may withdraw entirely from the nuclear pact, as well as the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, if U.N. sanctions are reimposed, opening a path to the accelerated enrichment of uranium and shutting the door on international inspections of Iran’s nuclear program by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The showdown threatens not just the viability of the Iran nuclear deal, which has been tottering for two years—but which the remaining participants still hope can be salvaged—but also the legitimacy of the U.N. Security Council.
“For people who oppose the JCPOA and who don’t like the U.N., this is a golden opportunity to kill two birds with one stone,” said Richard Nephew, who helped craft sanctions during the Obama administration. “In the worst-case scenario, the deal is dead, and the U.N. is rendered obsolete and neutered, which isn’t a bad thing from their [the Trump administration’s] perspective,” added Nephew, now at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.
For an administration that came into office seeking to contain China and restrain Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs, the approach seems misguided, said Jonathan Fulton, an expert on China and the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.
“You can’t solve North Korea or Iran without China, and you can’t solve North Korea if you blow up the JCPOA, because there’s no incentive to cooperate and any deal you make could be shredded,” he said. Then there was the yearslong Trump administration trade war with China. “It’s getting impossible to cooperate on anything,” he said.
Trump also appears to be making no progress against North Korea; on Friday, its news agency announced that the relationship between leader Kim Jong Un and Trump was terminated, two years after they first met in Singapore and raised hopes of a deal. “Nothing is more hypocritical than an empty promise,” North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Son Gwon, said in a statement to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
U.S. brinksmanship over the Iran question threatens to bring everything down. U.N. Security Council members could grudgingly concede that the United States, as it contends, has the right to unilaterally force the reimposition of the arms embargo—but that doesn’t mean anyone will honor it, least of all Russia and China.
“I don’t see any scenario where Russia and China agree to abide by snapback sanctions,” Nephew said. And worse, he suggested, it’s unlikely those permanent, veto-wielding members of the Security Council will sign up to any future efforts to use sanctions to rein in rogue states.
“We are not going to get another sanctions resolution at the U.N. Security Council for a generation, if ever. If you’re never going to get compliance from other states, it will be a choose-your-own-adventure—and nobody will do it,” Nephew said. Or, other states could simply refuse to even acknowledge the U.S. claim of a snapback on the embargo, which could lead to a paralyzed United Nations.
“In no circumstance will there be anything good. Either you have slow bleeding or you blow up the whole structure,” he said.
In the meantime, since the United States pulled out of the accord, Iran has carefully ramped its nuclear activities back up. It has restricted access to inspectors from the IAEA and reportedly hid past evidence of its nuclear program. It has shrugged off limits on the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges it can operate and has blown through limits on how big and how enriched its uranium stockpiles are—potentially bringing it closer to a nuclear bomb, the prevention of which was the whole point of the JCPOA in the first place. But experts say Iran isn’t racing for the bomb as much as trying to ramp up pressure on the remaining parties.
“The steps Iran took to breach the deal are serious and concerning, but they do not pose a near-term risk,” said Kelsey Davenport, a nonproliferation expert at the Arms Control Association. “Iran has breached the deal in a very calibrated, transparent manner—they are creating leverage, not dashing toward a bomb.”
Perhaps anticipating a deadlock, the United States has yet to engage in any substantive negotiations on an arms embargo in New York since February, when it first floated the idea of proposing a resolution extending the arms embargo on Iran beyond its October expiration. Diplomats say Washington has held some very general discussions about its plans in capitals, but it has held off those plans to table an actual resolution.
Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said this month that the United States would soon distribute a draft resolution extending the arms embargo, though it’s doubtful Washington could muster the votes needed to pass it. That would leave the United States with the option of invoking the automatic “snapback” of the embargo on grounds that Iran has failed to meet its obligations—even though the IAEA found that Iran was in compliance until Washington withdrew from the deal.
The immediate point of contention between the United States and the rest of the parties to the pact is whether Washington even has a say in the fate of any aspect of the deal going forward. That is important because on Oct. 18, a U.N. arms embargo—which was extended for a five-year period as part of the Iran nuclear pact—is set to expire. The Trump administration insists that it is named as a participant in Resolution 2231, which endorsed the nuclear accord it no longer recognizes, so it can still play arbiter to a deal it has nothing to do with. The European Union, China, and Russia—like many experts—reject that idea.
“The U.S. legal argument is ludicrous. The United States has said on numerous occasions that it is no longer a part of JCPOA, but it is cherry-picking elements of 2231 that support its pressure campaign while refusing to meet U.S. obligations elsewhere,” Davenport said.
For now, Iran, Russia, China, and European parties to the deal seem to be playing for time, trying to hold the nuclear accord together at least through the November U.S. presidential election. Russia and other countries are toying with procedural efforts to slow down the U.S. march to the snapback. If presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins—as recent polls suggest is a possibility—the deal could be resuscitated, though any additional restrictions on Iran’s missile programs and regional activities would require Tehran’s approval.
But the Trump administration seems determined to employ a scorched-earth policy and ensure that, whatever happens in November, Barack Obama’s Iran deal is a cadaver.
“Iran hawks want to kill any trace of the JCPOA before the term is up, burn down any diplomatic bridges with Iran,” said Geranmayeh of ECFR.
Others concur that the U.S. effort to invoke U.N. arms sanctions on Iran—against the wishes of all the parties to the accord—would be a way to demolish any talk of reviving a deal that has been anathema to Republicans for five years. Trump has occasionally talked of driving the Iranians back to the table for a new deal, but Tehran has refused.
“This is about smashing the JCPOA and ensuring that any future administration cannot put the pieces back together,” Davenport said. And she warned that future efforts to curb nuclear proliferation could be endangered if Washington decides to reimpose an arms embargo that helped bring Iran to the nuclear table in the first place.
“They are trying to change the goal posts,” she said. “If the United States goes down this road, it would have serious consequences not just for the Iran deal but for nuclear proliferation writ large.” And the fallout from this fight could have even bigger impacts as the United States still seeks to corral international support to deal with rogue regimes from North Korea to Venezuela.
“If we are in a situation where there is such a fundamental clash between the United States and other permanent members [of the Security Council], they are going to have a much more difficult time pushing through resolutions on areas where the United States may have previously been able to persuade Russia and China to come aboard,” Geranmayeh said.
“It could really do irreparable damage to the U.N. Security Council framework.”