Think again about the Iran sanctions snapback

Bloomberg – The Trump administration is isolating itself, not the regime in Tehran.

The Trump administration’s policy toward Iran seems increasingly guided by the desire to look tough between now and November’s election, regardless of the long-term harm its maneuvers are doing to U.S. interests. Its latest initiative is to try and force the so-called snapback of international sanctions against Iran — under the terms of an agreement the U.S. earlier chose to abandon. This approach is unlikely to succeed and threatens only to drive yet another wedge between America and its friends.

Last month, President Trump and his team failed to persuade the United Nations Security Council to extend a conventional arms embargo on Iran. Instead, they are seeking to achieve the same end by invoking a provision of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that allows participants to reimpose multilateral sanctions. The pact’s other signatories argue the U.S. no longer has any right to do so given its 2018 withdrawal from the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The probable outcome: On Sept. 20, the U.S. will assert that all sanctions are back in place, while much of the world refuses to comply and seeks to thwart Washington using procedural roadblocks at the U.N. In short, the policy is more likely to isolate the U.S. than Iran.

The administration’s approach is likely to backfire in other ways as well. Russia and China could easily flout the supposedly reimposed strictures. That would set the template for selective implementation of future U.N. sanctions in other cases, possibly weakening efforts to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program, for example. Meantime, Iran gets to shift the focus of international censure to the U.S., and away from its own violations of the JCPOA.

By acting both unilaterally and unintelligently, the U.S. is undercutting its own ability to counter the Iranian threat. History shows that Iran responds best to concerted international pressure. A diplomatically adept U.S. would be looking to unite the global community and divide the leadership in Tehran. The Trump administration has done precisely the opposite — fracturing the international coalition that first brought Iran to the table while unifying factions within the Iranian regime.

The JCPOA was deeply flawed, to be sure. Too many of its provisions, including the arms embargo, expire too soon. It failed to curb Iran’s ballistic-missile program or confront the regime’s efforts to destabilize the region. But effectively addressing these challenges requires the international consensus on Iran to be rebuilt.

The snapback initiative militates against that goal. The administration should instead be working quietly with its European allies and regional partners such as Saudi Arabia and Israel to persuade Russia and China to maintain the arms embargo, even if unofficially, for the next several months. The U.S. could use this time to build support among the JCPOA’s original signatories for a new joint approach to Iran. Meanwhile, as long as Tehran continues to violate the enrichment limits set in the nuclear deal and sponsor violent proxies across the Middle East, unilateral U.S. sanctions can and should continue.

With its own presidential elections looming next June, Iran is unlikely to offer a deal that addresses all of Washington’s concerns anytime soon. But an interim deal that pauses Iran’s nuclear progress until a more comprehensive agreement can be reached might be attainable. Getting there would be a whole lot easier with the world on America’s side.