Breaking: The UN ‘Snapback’ Option On Iran Is Full Of Pitfalls
Radio Farda is publishing a series of expert analysis and commentaries on the United States move to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran beyond October 2020.
The Trump administration is intent on killing the 2015 nuclear deal and ensuring that a future U.S. administration cannot resurrect it, irrespective of the consequences. The next step toward that goal appears to be extending UN restrictions on Iranian arms transfers by abusing the snapback mechanism outlined in Resolution 2231 to reimpose sanctions lifted or modified by the nuclear agreement. The Trump administration’s argument that it is still a “JCPOA participant” as defined by Resolution 2231 and therefore entitled to trigger snapback is a blatant attempt by to cherry pick elements of Resolution 2231 that serve U.S. goals while ignoring the obligations for JCPOA participants listed in that same resolution.
Absent an egregious provocation by Iran or a significant nuclear escalation, it is unlikely that the Trump administration will have support for reimposing sanctions at the Security Council, so it may be possible to procedurally block the United States from putting snapback on the Security Council agenda or to argue that the Trump administration’s own declaration that the United States is no longer a “JCPOA participant” precludes Washington from pursing snapback. However, since there is no precedent for the snapback procedure, it is unclear these arguments will successfully quell U.S. attempts.
Given the Trump administration’s single-mindedness when it comes to ratcheting up pressure on Iran, it seems unlikely that Washington will be swayed by arguments pointing out the long-term consequences of pursuing snapback. However, it still behooves the Europeans, China, and Russia to argue that U.S. attempts to reimpose UN sanctions could have serious implications for the future of Iran’s nuclear program, the legitimacy of the Security Council, and nonproliferation efforts writ large.
First, Iran views the arms embargo’s expiration in October as one of the few tangible benefits of remaining in the deal. Iranian officials have threatened to abandon the JCPOA, and possibly the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), if the arms embargo is extended. An unrestrained Iranian nuclear program subject to less monitoring will escalate tensions and increase the risk of conflict in the region. This would likely complicate future nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Second, at the Security Council level there is a very real possibility that member states refuse to recognize sanctions snapped back due to U.S. manipulation of Resolution 2231. That sets up a crisis of legitimacy that could have serious ramifications for implementation and enforcement of other binding resolutions, including future measures addressing Iran’s nuclear program.
Third, by pursing snapback, the Trump administration is risking sanctions as a tool of nonproliferation policy. The arms embargo was imposed to pressure Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program—it is a nuclear-related sanction. Arguing for an extension of the arms embargo because the United States finds Iran’s regional activities to be destabilizing changes the rationale behind the original restriction. It sends a message that the United States will move the goal post on sanctions relief if U.S. priorities change, further eroding international support for sanctions and the credibility of a sanction’s relief in future negotiations.
If the Trump administration pursues snapback the United States and the international community will pay the price for it for years to come. Allowing the arms embargo to expire may be politically unpalatable in the United States, but unlike the consequences of snapback, that risk can be managed.
The opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily the views of Radio Farda