By Samuel M. Hickey
Years of the Trump Administration trying to squeeze Tehran, either to the negotiating table or to regime change, have so far failed. As the U.S. general election creeps ever closer, it seems that a last-ditch effort to unilaterally reimpose all previous United Nations (UN) sanctions and more permanently isolate Iran is underway. All eyes are now on the scheduled expiration of a UN arms embargo on Iran in October 2020.
The Trump Administration appears to be pursuing a multi-phased approach to fully collapse the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and re-impose all UN sanctions on Iran. Phase One of the plan is a pressure campaign at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors (BoG) to build up a technical case of Iranian malfeasance. Phase Two moves to the UN Security Council where the Trump Administration will introduce a doomed to fail resolution to extend the UN arms embargo for the purpose of political cover. Finally, Phase Three is a dangerous gambit to snap back all UN sanctions at the Security Council. The Trump Administration needs to start the 30-day snapback process by September 17 at the Security Council, in order to beat the October 18 scheduled expiration of the arms embargo.
Phase One: The IAEA Board of Governors
At the last BoG meeting in June, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi turned up the heat on Tehran by reporting possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear-related activities at three locations to which the IAEA has not been granted access. This was a huge win for the United States. The IAEA BoG will next meet September 14-18, and then again on September 28 after the IAEA General Conference on September 21. However, rather than a direct path to the Security Council, the United States will likely use the IAEA’s compliance reports and adopted resolutions to make its case for “snapback” at the Security Council. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Grossi warned that Tehran had until the end of July to comply or it “will be bad.” Washington will likely rely on the next compliance reports to flip international opinion.
In theory, the IAEA BoG could refer Iran to the Security Council as it did back in the mid-2000s but the United States’ role in generating the current dispute will likely lead to a more measured and minimalist response from the BoG. It took years to get the BoG to refer Iran to the Security Council in the first place because all 35 members have their own political motivations. Further, Tehran has warned that Security Council referral could spur the country to withdraw from the JCPOA and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), replicating North Korea, which shows how dangerous Washington’s strategy could be.
Phase Two: A Political Show at the Security Council
Washington intended to introduce its resolution to indefinitely extend the arms embargo the week of August 10-14, but it has met stiff resistance from Moscow and Beijing who also object to the United States’ claimed status and ability to snap back sanctions since leaving the JCPOA in May 2018. An earlier version of this resolution was circulated in June, but it was largely dismissed. On August 10, that resolution did not get over the 9-vote threshold necessary to force Russia or China to issue a veto, so Washington had to change its strategy. The fact that the United States’ demands had not changed since June further confirms that this was not a serious resolution; but that it was merely an exercise to show there was an off-ramp to the impending chaos at the Security Council created by the Trump Administration initiating Phase Three.
The new resolution to be introduced by Friday, August 14 is just four paragraphs long and would extend the arms embargo “until the Security Council decides otherwise.” Despite the diplomatic scrambling, it is highly unlikely that this latest effort would succeed either. As a compromise, the European Union offered to extend its own arms embargo, but the offer was soundly rejected by the Trump Administration. The United States is more focused on arms sales emanating from Russia and China. The Guardian reports that the United States has not officially ruled out accepting a UN code of conduct restricting conventional arms sales to Iran, but the terms of enforcement would be the bone of contention. Barring some heroic diplomatic work by the Europeans, international tensions will increase as we near a September 17 deadline for the United States to pull off legal jujitsu at the Security Council and collapse the nuclear deal.
Phase Three: Unilateral Snapback
If the Trump Administration intends to start the 30-day snapback process, they need to register it by September 17 at the Security Council, in order to beat the October 18 scheduled expiration of the arms embargo. It would need to be placed on the Security Council agenda — drawn up by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres — and then approved by the president of the Council. The presidency rotates monthly and Indonesia, Niger and Russia will hold the presidency in August, September and October, respectively.
If the president approves the schedule, then a vote would need to be held to continue Security Council resolution 2231, which endorses the JCPOA, within 30 days. In theory, the United States could then veto this vote, “snapping back” all previous UN sanctions on Iran, effectively collapsing the nuclear deal.
However, even if the item makes it on the agenda, which is not assured, it would likely give rise to objections by Moscow and Beijing that the United States no longer holds the status of “JCPOA participant” and thus cannot call for this vote. This could lead to a procedural vote, whereby the United States would need affirmative votes by 9 out of 15 members to move forward. A flurry of diplomatic activity has come at the end of July with outgoing U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook making trips to Tunisia, Estonia and the United Kingdom to lobby for the 9 votes.
The outcome at the Security Council is uncertain. If the Trump Administration is successful, then the collapse of the nuclear deal could lead Iran to respond by limiting IAEA inspector access or following through on its threat to leave the NPT. If the Trump Administration fails, the JCPOA might survive a little longer — perhaps even gaining new life if former Vice President Joe Biden wins the U.S. election. No matter what, the Trump Administration’s approach will likely add to global instability at an already unstable time.