The Dangerous Consequences of Trump’s Plan to Snapback UN Sanctions on Iran

The Security Council decisively rejected a U.S. resolution to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran, which is set to expire in October. Despite the humiliating vote on Aug. 14—with 11 abstentions, 2 states voting against, and only the Dominican Republic voting with the United States in favor of the resolution—the Trump administration has signaled that it will try to prevent the embargo from expiring by using what is known as the “snapback” provision in Security Council Resolution 2231.

Resolution 2231, which endorsed the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), allows JCPOA participants to reimpose or “snapback” UN sanctions on Iran using a procedure that circumvents the traditional veto power exercised by the five permanent members of the Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Attempting to unilaterally snapback sanctions would be a dangerous escalation in the Trump administration’s already irresponsible policy toward Iran that could have serious ramifications for the JCPOA and the future of the Security Council. In the event the U.S. gambit somehow succeeds, Iran has threatened to take further retaliatory steps, which could include ramping up its uranium enrichment capabilities, curtailing cooperation with International Atomic Energy Agency inspections, and/or withdrawing from the nuclear deal.

The Trump administration, however, appears oblivious to those costs. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft said Aug. 14 that the United States will “stop at nothing to extend the arms embargo” and intends to move forward on snapback immediately.

The Trump administration claims that extending the arms embargo is a security imperative, both for the United States and countries in the Middle East. Yet it is increasingly clear that the Trump administration is actually pursuing snapback to provide a pretext for killing the JCPOA and to ensure that there is no opportunity for a future U.S. administration to rejoin the agreement—regardless of the adverse consequences for international peace and security.

The Trump administration has rebuffed good faith efforts by European allies to mitigate the risks posed by the embargo’s lapse in a way that does not jeopardize the JCPOA. Most recently, Trump said Aug. 16 that he would not participate in a head-of-state meeting proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin “in order to outline steps that can prevent confrontation” at the UN and to “facilitate the emergence of reliable mechanisms in the Persian Gulf region for enduring security and confidence building.”

It is unclear if the Trump administration will succeed in arguing that it is still a JCPOA participant under Resolution 2231, and therefore entitled to snapback sanctions, even though the United States left the nuclear deal. When Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA in May 2018, he said the United States is no longer a participant in deal. That same day, then then-National Security Advisor John Bolton dismissed the idea that the Trump administration would pursue UN snapback, noting that “we’re out of the deal.”

Bolton, who is notoriously hawkish on Iran and vehemently opposed the JCPOA, reiterated his opposition to the snapback concept in a Aug. 16 Wall Street Journal oped, noting the damage the United States could do to the Security Council veto and arguing that “[i]t’s too cute by half to say we’re in the nuclear deal for purposes we want but not for those we don’t.”

The remaining P4+1 parties to the JCPOA—all of which currently sit on the Security Council—have opposed the U.S. plan to pursue snapback, some voicing arguments similar to Bolton. In an April 30 interview with Radio Farda, EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell expressly stated that Europe does not consider the United States a participating member of the 2015 nuclear deal. Russia's Ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, said May 12 that the U.S. legal argument is "ridiculous" and that it is "unequivocal" that the Trump administration has "no right" to use the snapback mechanism.

If, however, the United States succeeds in snapping back sanctions, the consequences will be dire. These serious ramifications likely include:

  • Instigating a new nuclear crisis with Iran. Tehran views the arms embargo expiration as one of the only benefits to remaining party to the nuclear deal. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani promised a “crushing” response if it is not lifted in October, as required by Resolution 2231. Iranian officials have been vague about what specific action will be taken but have mentioned that options on the table include exiting the JCPOA, and more seriously, withdrawing from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). In either scenario, there would be no limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment program and its nuclear activities would be subject to less—or in the case of NPT withdrawal, possibly no—international monitoring. The threat to exit the JCPOA and/or the NPT should not be taken as a sign that Tehran has decided to pursue nuclear weapons, but it would certainly decrease transparency and increase speculation that Iran intends to develop nuclear weapons. That in turn increases the risk of conflict in the region. Additionally, if the JCPOA collapses, it would also send future negotiations with Iran back to square one. But unlike negotiations on the JCPOA, the United States will have far less credibility and international support because of Trump’s irresponsible policy and blatant disregards of the security concerns of U.S. allies. Washington will also be forced to take into account Iran’s advances in uranium enrichment over the past several years.
  • Trigging a broader nuclear proliferation chain reaction. As the Trump administration has sought to tear down the JCPOA, Saudi Arabia is taking further steps to keep its own option for nuclear weapons in play. New reports that Riyadh is investing in processes to create the raw material for uranium enrichment, underscore that a new nuclear crisis with Iran may spill beyond Iran’s borders. Unrestrained nuclear programs in one or more countries will exacerbate existing tensions and, depending on the state of the Saudi program, could also complicate future negotiations with Iran, as Tehran may demand that Riyadh face similar limits and monitoring. The JCPOA has also been widely supported by the international community as a critical and effective nonproliferation achievement that addressed a decades long-crisis with Iran. At a time when the NPT regime is already under serious stress heading into the pivotal 10th review conference, tentatively scheduled for January 2021, it can ill afford accelerating nuclear programs in the volatile Middle East.
  • Isolating the United States from key allies. The Trump administration’s pursuit of snapback demonstrates a blatant disregard for the security concerns of key U.S. allies. Washington’s European partners in the JCPOA—France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—opposed U.S. withdrawal from the accord and the reimposition of sanctions in May 2018 on the grounds that implementation of the nuclear deal was a victory for nonproliferation and essential for European security. The Trump administration did not take their interests in account then and is ignoring them again on snapback. While all three states expressed concern about the implications of the arms embargo expiring in Aug. 14 statements, they also reiterated the importance of addressing regional security and preserving the JCPOA. As the United Kingdom expressly noted, “[w]e do not support a move to snapback at this time, which would be incompatible with our current efforts to preserve the JCPOA.”
  • Undermining sanctions as a tool of statecraft. The UN restrictions on Iran’s arms trade were put in place to pressure Tehran into negotiating over its nuclear program—they are nuclear-related sanctions. When the most stringent restrictions on conventional arms were included in Resolution 1929 in 2010, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, speaking on behalf of the P5+1 group, said the aim of the sanctions was “to achieve a comprehensive and long-term settlement which would restore international confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.” The Trump administration, however, is now arguing that the arms embargo must be extended to address Iran’s destabilizing regional activities—changing the goal posts on the requirements for sanctions removal. This further jeopardizes U.S. credibility and undermines future use of sanctions. Sanctions are a powerful coercive tool, but their effectiveness in pressuring states to negotiate requires a credible path to removal. If the sanctioned state has no reason to believe sanctions will actually lifted as part of any agreement, they will have less incentive to negotiate. Altering the requirements for lifting the nuclear-related arms embargo sanctions reinforces the message to Iran that the United States cannot be trusted to waive sanctions if Tehran meets the originally described pathway to lifting the restrictions. This would make any future talks with Iran over its nuclear program even more difficult, as Iran will have little reason to believe the United States was negotiating in good faith.
  • Creating a crisis of legitimacy at the Security Council. It is unclear if the United States will succeed in snapping back sanctions on Iran. If the Trump administration is successful, snapback could have serious, long-term repercussions on UN sanctions and the legitimacy of future Security Council actions. The remaining P4+1 countries have all stated that they oppose any U.S. snapback attempt, and Russia and China have said that any attempt by the United States would be illegal. However, if the sanctions are re-imposed, all UN member states will be legally obligated to implement them. Despite that obligation, it appears likely that Russia, China, and a number of other member states will view the reimposition of UN sanctions on Iran as illegitimate and refuse to enforce them. This sets a dangerous precedent for selective implementation of UN sanctions down the road, which undermines and weakens a key tool available to the Security Council to address a number of threats to peace and security, including implementation and enforcement of North Korea sanctions.

Expiration of the original UN arms embargo on Iran could have troubling consequences, but there are options for mitigating those risks that do not carry the same serious consequences as snapping back UN sanctions under Resolution 2231. In addition to the binding UN restrictions on selling arms to groups such as Hezbollah and the Houthis and U.S. unliteral sanctions on Iranian arms sales, there are voluntary multilateral mechanisms that are designed to prevent the spread of certain weapons. The United States could work with allies and partners in the Middle East to strengthen those mechanisms.

A smarter approach would be for the Trump administration, or a future U.S. president, to agree to rejoin the JCPOA once and if Iran returns to compliance with the nuclear limits established by the accord. Then the United States would be in a far better, and more credible, position to pursue talks with Tehran that begin to address regional security issues, U.S. concerns about Iranian arms sales, and perhaps most importantly to begin negotiations a longer-term framework for Iran’s nuclear program after some of the key JCPOA limits on Iran’s nuclear program expire in the coming years.