The Trump administration’s push to kill off what’s left of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran comes to a head this weekend at the United Nations, where allies and adversaries argue the US effort to restore sanctions is groundless and a diplomatic crisis is set to explode.
The US bid to restore all UN sanctions on Iran -- which Secretary of State Michael Pompeo contends will go into effect on Sunday in the middle of the UN General Assembly -- deepens a chasm between the US and most other nations. Even European allies say the US has no right to invoke the accord’s “snapback provision because President Donald Trump quit the multinational deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program two years ago.
The issue is already sowing anger and division. The US and a handful of Mideast allies are declaring the end of the nuclear deal while most other Security Council members -- from Russia and China to Germany, the UK and France -- disagree with the latest example of Trump’s “America First” foreign policy.
“The US will obviously put pressure on others to implement sanctions,” said Ashish Pradhan, a senior UN analyst at the International Crisis Group, which argued in a report that the coming US election will decide the outcome of the dispute.
“I’m sure some of the Gulf states, Israel and others will issue some statements saying they recognize the re-imposition of sanctions. But on the UN Security Council it seems like they’ll hold the fort.”
The US asserts that all of the UN resolutions on Iran that were in place before the 2015 deal -- from a ban on arm deals to restrictions on the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile activity and its nuclear enrichment -- will go back into effect. To enforce those measures if countries like Russia and China disregard them, the US could use tools such as secondary sanctions on shippers, insurers and banks and may even threaten interdictions of ships at sea.
“We expect every nation to comply with UN Security Council resolutions. Period. Full stop,” Pompeo told reporters Thursday during a visit to Suriname. “And the United States is intent on enforcing all the UN Security Council resolutions.”
Why US, Other Powers Differ on Iran Nuclear Deal: QuickTake
The US deadline comes two days before Trump is expected to deliver a speech remotely Tuesday to the UN General Assembly, which is being held virtually this year due to the pandemic. Trump is likely to renew his past denunciations of Iran and vow to enforce the renewed sanctions, which Russia and China have already said they will flout by selling advanced weapons to Tehran when a UN arms embargo expires in October.
The president is also expected to boast of his role in what he’s called “the dawn of a new Middle East” -- the US-brokered accords signed last week at the White House between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The UN forum is a chance for Trump to promote his foreign policy as a success less than 50 days before a presidential election in which he lags Democrat Joe Biden in national polls.
The other key participants in the nuclear accord all reject the US move, seeking to keep the agreement on life support in case Biden wins in November.
Biden has pledged to rejoin and then improve the deal, arguing that Trump’s go-it-alone strategy to pressure Iran has left the US without allies.
“I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy,” Biden wrote in a op-ed for CNN. “If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations. With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern.”
Fu Cong, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s top arms-control official, this month dismissed the Trump administration’s demand as “absolutely absurd.” Instead, Fu proposed a “new dialogue platform to uphold the original agreement.”
Despite the disapproval of most UN members, the Trump administration’s decision could put significant new pressure on Iran, especially if Trump wins re-election.
“Iran invites the international community to be vigilant about the US bullying against other countries in violation of international law,” Alireza Miryousefi, an official at Iran’s UN mission, said in a statement.
Complicating the diplomatic calculus is Iran’s own political calendar, with elections next year that could generate a more hardline leadership.
If the Chinese and Russians move ahead with “big press announcements about future arms sales, the US could apply crippling secondary sanctions, which would punish not only defense companies but also those they deal with, according to Richard Goldberg, a former National Security Council official under Trump.
“It will be up to the US and coalition partners that have economic influence on customers of Russia and China to use our combined economic weight in the same way we have conducted the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign, only this time to put pressure on them not to move forward with sales of conventional arms,” said Goldberg, who’s now a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based supporter of tough sanctions against Iran.
Another concern is that the United Nations system could become collateral damage in the fight over the Iran snapback. The US will put pressure on the UN to give the decision its seal of approval by appointing experts to oversee the restored sanctions and set up a website to track them.
But the UN will try to stay out of the fray, the world organization’s customary survival mechanism. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is trying his best to punt the issue back to the Security Council.
“It is the Security Council that is the body able to do the interpretations of Security Council resolutions, and we will align with what the Security Council does,” Guterres said on Wednesday.
Diplomats said the US could move to pressure the UN by withholding funds or delaying certain payments.
“Any conflict between big powers of the world has repercussions for the UN,” Tijjani Muhammad-Bande of Nigeria, the outgoing UN General Assembly president, said in an interview. “We must continue to urge caution and to de-escalate tensions.”