The Trump administration unilaterally declared Saturday that international sanctions on Iran, lifted as part of a 2015 nuclear accord, have been reimposed.
There's one problem: Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia – the other signatories to the deal President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from – have no intention of enforcing those sanctions.
The United Nations' 15-member Security Council, which endorsed the Iran agreement negotiated by the Obama administration, has concluded the U.S. has no legal standing to enforce the so-called "snapback" sanctions, since it is no longer a party to the nuclear deal.
Still, on Saturday evening, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared: "The United States welcomes the return of virtually all previously terminated UN sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran."
Pompeo notified the Security Council on Aug. 20 that the U.S. would be triggering the snapback penalties by Sept. 20. And Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, told reporters Wednesday the U.S. expects "all U.N. member states to implement their member state responsibilities and respect their obligations to uphold these sanctions."
Abrams added: "If other nations do not follow it, I think they should be asked ... whether they do not think they are weakening the structure of U.N. sanctions."
The Trump administration says it had to act because an arms embargo on Iran is set to expire in October. Pompeo has warned about the prospect of Iran being able to purchase conventional weapons from Russia or China. Snapping the sanctions back into place would bar Iran from buying such weapons.
Richard Goldberg, who worked in Trump administration on Iran weapons issues until earlier this year, said he expects the president to threaten sanctions against any Russian or Chinese business that facilitate the sale of weapons to Iran, principally defense companies and banks.
"It’s a game of chicken using the deterrent power of U.S. financial sanctions to force Moscow and Beijing to alter their behavior, out of fear that sanctions will cost them a lot of money," said Goldberg, who is now a senior adviser with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan think tank that supports a hardline on Iran. Whether it works, he said, will depend on Trump's willingness to enforce those sanctions – and extend penalties to other nations that do business with blacklisted Chinese or Russian entitites.
In his statement on Saturday, he said the U.S. would "announce a range of additional measures to strengthen implementation of UN sanctions and hold violators accountable."
Russia and China fiercely oppose reimposing sanctions on Iran, as do other Security Council members. France, Germany and other U.S. allies have tried to salvage the Iran nuclear deal, despite the U.S. withdrawal. Critics say Trump lost his leverage to expand the nuclear agreement when he withdrew from it and Iran wants to proceed with the original deal, not a new one.
"The Trump Administration talked a big game but has produced no results," Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said when the administration announced its plans to force the sanctions snapback. The latest move, he said, "is the ultimate admission of failure."
Ever since the Trump administration exited the nuclear deal in 2018, Iran has stayed in the agreement while loosening its adherence to the accord by accelerating uranium enrichment. Iran's leaders maintain they are only interested in nuclear material for civilian purposes, an assertion many question.
In addition to the arms embargo, the U.N. sanctions the U.S. is seeking to reimpose would include a total ban on uranium enrichment as well as a complete prohibition on Iran's missile activity.
The Security Council rejected a prior U.S. effort to extend the arms embargo, although it did get backing from one country: the Dominican Republic – one of 10 current non-permanent members of the Security Council. Israel and some Arab states who signed U.S.-brokered "normalization" accords covering their relations, also support American efforts to slap the additional U.N. sanctions on Iran.
"The Security Council’s inaction would have paved the way for Iran to buy all manner of conventional weapons on October 18," Pompeo said Saturday.
"Fortunately for the world, the United States took responsible action to stop this from happening," he said. "The return of sanctions today is a step toward international peace and security."
Trump pulls U.S. from Iran nuclear deal, returns to sanctions
President Trump made an announcement from the White House, keeping his campaign promise, that the United States would withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal. John Fritze reports.
Others said it was a recipe for heightened confrontation.
In an analysis for the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, Iran expert Trita Parsi said that with less than seven weeks to go until the U.S. presidential elections, Trump could be "preparing the ground for an 'October Surprise' – a confrontation with Iran that will be cast as both defensive and lawful."
Parsi implied that starting a war with Iran could be a tactic Trump attempts to use to help him win the election.
He said Pompeo has signaled he will "enforce the non-existent U.N. sanctions," which could see "U.S. warships attacking and confiscating Iranian cargo ships in international waters – as well as non-Iranian vessels suspected of carrying Iranian goods."
However, Trump has said he does not want a war with Iran. He has repeatedly sought negotiations with Tehran's leaders for what he says would be a better agreement, restricting not only Iran's nuclear ambitions but also its ballistic missile program and its support for terrorist proxy groups in the Middle East.
The objective is "not a military confrontation. It’s to bring Iran to the negotiating table and have a genuine conversation about how we can change Iran’s behavior," Timothy Lenderking, Trump’s deputy assistant secretary for Arabian Gulf Affairs, told reporters on Thursday.
The Trump administration's declaration comes as the United Nations prepares to celebrate its 75th anniversary at a General Assembly forum from Tuesday, when Trump is expected to address the issue of Iran in a speech to the coronavirus-restricted event.
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