Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the U.N. Security Council in New York last August. (Photo by Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)
(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heads to New York on Thursday for an encounter that could lead to the biggest crisis in the U.N. Security Council in years, as the administration seeks to restore all of the U.N. sanctions against the Iranian regime that were lifted under the nuclear deal.
Pompeo will meet with the UNSC president – Indonesia holds the rotating chair this month – and U.N. secretary-general Antonio Guterres, starting a 30-day clock for the sanctions to “snap back,” on the basis of “significant non-performance” by Iran in complying with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The administration is taking the step because the UNSC last week resoundingly defeated the U.S. attempt to extend the arms embargo against Iran. The JCPOA set a five-year expiry date for the embargo, and Russia and China are keen to start selling conventional arms to Tehran again once it falls away on October 18.
“Secretary Pompeo’s notification to the council follows its inexcusable failure last week to extend the arms embargo on the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and anti-Semitism,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Wednesday.
As envisaged by the State Department, the restoration of sanctions will have the effect of extending the arms embargo indefinitely.
The embargo was first put in place with a unanimous March 2007 UNSC resolution, and reinforced in two further resolutions, passed in 2008 and 2010.
But the provisions of those resolutions, and others relating to the Iranian nuclear issue, all fell away when the Obama administration in 2015 ushered through resolution 2231, the measure that enshrined the JCPOA.
Resolution 2231 is also the text that provides for the “snapback” procedure which Pompeo aims to trigger.
Rather than set up a vote to restore sanctions – which would likely be vetoed by Russia or China – the provision reverses the process: The sanctions are automatically reimposed in 30 days unless another JCPOA participant puts forward a resolution to extend the suspension of the sanctions. Should that happen, the U.S. could simply veto that measure.
The mechanism was touted at the time by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry as a fail-safe, “unique” tool to respond to any Iranian non-compliance.
“There will be a clear procedure in the final deal that allows both the U.N. and unilateral sanctions to snap back without needing to cajole lots of other countries – including Russia or China – to support it,” Biden told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in April 2005, as the agreement was being wrapped up. “That will be written in the final deal.”
Kerry, speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations in July of that year, explained further:
“We have the ability to snap back all of the sanctions, and again, what we negotiated is a unique arrangement where one nation alone – say, the United States, if we’re not happy, we can go to the Security Council and we alone can force a vote on the snapping back of those sanctions,” Kerry said.
“And the vote is already structured in the U.N. resolution , that was passed the other day, as a reverse vote. The vote will be on whether or not to continue the lifting of the sanctions. So one country alone, the United States, could veto that vote and we don’t lift – we don’t continue the lifting, and they all snap back. Unique.”
‘No right to demand’
Other JCPOA participants and former Obama administration officials say the U.S. no longer has the standing to initiate the snapback provision, because it withdrew from the deal two years ago.
“[S]ince you pulled out, declaring that the U.S. is ‘ending its participation’ in the agreement, you can’t make use of its provisions,” Jon Wolfsthal, who served as director for non-proliferation and arms control on Obama’s National Security Council, said in a tweet Wednesday directed at Pompeo.
In a letter to the U.N. in June, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi wrote, “The United States, no longer a participant to the JCPOA after walking away from it, has no right to demand the Security Council invoke a snapback.”
His Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, took a similar line in a letter of his own last May, saying the U.S. stance recalls the expression about “having one’s cake and eating it.”
The administration disputes that reasoning, arguing that despite having exited the deal, it remains an original JCPOA participant and is also a permanent member of the UNSC, whose resolution 2231 endorsed the deal.
How other UNSC members will react to Pompeo’s maneuver remains to be seen.
“The most likely scenario is a rancorous quarrel in New York, at the end of which the U.S. will assert that sanctions have legitimately been restored; Russia and China say they have not; and European nations (as well as other Council members) do their best to avoid both trouble with Iran and injury to the international body,” the International Crisis Group said in a recent analysis of the snapback initiative.
Pompeo say that, once the 30-day notice period is up, the U.S. will treat any transactions with Iran as violations of a binding UNSC resolution, in the same way as it now treats any violation of U.S. sanctions on the regime.
“When we’ve seen any country violate our current sanctions, the current American sanctions, we’ve held every nation accountable for that,” he told Fox News’ Bret Baier on Wednesday night. “We’ll do the same thing with respect to the broader U.N. Security Council sanctions as well.”
At the State Department earlier in the day, Pompeo told reporters the U.S. has “every expectation that they [the restored sanctions] will be enforced just like every other U.N. Security Council resolution that is in place.”
“We have every expectation that every country in the world will live up to its obligations, including every member of the P5 and every member of the U.N. that will take seriously the international commitments to which they have signed up for.”
The P5 are the permanent UNSC members – the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China.