The foreign-policy chickens are coming to the White House to roost, as the U.S. makes its final, doomed effort to extend a United Nations arms embargo on Iran.
Having needlessly antagonized European leaders from the start of his presidency, Donald Trump cannot now rely on them to back the U.S. in any effort to prevent the Islamic Republic from acquiring powerful new weapons.
It will be up to the Europeans to do the right thing. But that would require them to set aside their grievances, many of them legitimate, against the Trump administration — which is improbable. Germany, France and Britain will more than likely back, whether by acclamation or acquiescence, the efforts of China and Russia to sell tanks, missiles and fighter jets to the theocrats of Tehran after the embargo expires in October.
This would be the diplomatic equivalent to cutting one’s nose off to spite one’s face. The European leaders will in effect be acting as unpaid agents for Chinese and Russian weapons makers. In exchange for betraying their principles, they’ll merely enjoy a measure of schadenfreude: the sight of the Trump administration’s humiliation in the Security Council.
Despite the watering-down of the American draft resolution on extending the 13-year-old arms embargo, it is all but certain to be rejected. The first version, laden with rhetoric condemning the regime in Tehran, required other countries to join the U.S. in sanctioning individuals and entities, as well as interdicting cargo to and from Iran. The new text simply calls for the weapons ban on Iran to be extended “until the Security Council decides otherwise,” arguing this is “essential to the maintenance of international peace and security.”
The climb-down may buy some votes in the council, but it is not certain U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft can secure the nine votes needed to force Russia and China to exercise their vetoes. Even if she does so, it will be the hollowest of victories.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cannot rely on European support for his next gambit: an attempt to reimpose U.S. sanctions that were eased when Iran signed the 2015 nuclear deal with the world powers. Known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the deal allows participants to “snap back” sanctions — including the weapons ban — if they judge Iran to be in contravention of the terms.
But the other signatories, including the Europeans, are loath to allow this. They argue that the U.S. forfeited its right to trigger a snap-back in 2018, when it pulled out of the JCPOA.
At the time, the Trump administration argued — correctly — that the JCPOA was deeply flawed: Its restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program expire too soon, and it does nothing to restrain Tehran’s other menacing activities, such as the sponsorship of terrorism and proxy militias across the Middle East, and the development of ballistic missiles.
Since then, Trump and Pompeo have made little effort to sell this argument to the Europeans, choosing instead to demand their deference. All the while, the president and his officials have attacked their closest allies over a host of other issues, ranging from trade terms to NATO dues.
Small wonder, then, that the Europeans are disinclined to help the U.S. at the Security Council. They argue that a sanctions snap-back would kill the JCPOA — a specious objection since the deal is already dead, and Iran is in breach of its terms.
Having burned its own bridges with Europe, the Trump administration might have used intermediaries to make its case, and the most obvious candidates would have been the Arab states that have the most to fear from an Iran with easy access to Chinese and Russian arms. But here, too, its efforts amounted to too little, too late. The Gulf Cooperation Council last week issued a statement calling on the Security Council to extend the embargo — but by then, the cause was already lost.
With the Council unlikely to extend the weapons ban, and the chances of a snap-back looking slim, the main hope of denying Iran access to sophisticated arms may rest on the threat of American sanctions against weapons manufacturers. Of course, the threat would be more potent if accompanied by European sanctions as well. But the Trump administration will have to get by without even a little help from America’s friends.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.