U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed he will travel to U.N. headquarters in New York on Thursday to formally trigger the so-called snapback provision that would force the Security Council to reactivate sanctions imposed against Iran in the years before a 2015 agreement to try and force Tehran to curtail its nuclear weapons program.
“These will be fully valid, enforceable U.N. Security Council resolutions,” Pompeo said Wednesday. “We have every expectation that they’ll be enforced.”
The American push for sanctions has left Europe, which is intent on keeping the Iran nuclear deal alive and opposes the U.S. move, in an awkward position. Not only does it put the European powers on the Security Council (France, the U.K. and Germany, which currently holds a non-permanent seat) in the same camp as Russia and China, both of which oppose the U.S. position, it also creates the appearance the trio is backing Iran over Washington, Europe’s most important ally.
In 2018, the Trump administration, arguing Iran couldn’t be trusted, abandoned the nuclear deal, originally agreed between Tehran and six world powers in 2015 during the presidency of Barack Obama. Ever since, Europe has been trying to keep the deal afloat, even in the face of Iranian violations.
In a prelude to this week’s drama, Europe last week abstained on a Security Council vote brought by the U.S. on whether to extend an arms embargo against Iran that expires in October. But there’s no hiding from the snapback maneuver; either European powers will agree to enforce the sanctions, as stipulated in the resolution underpinning the Iran nuclear deal, or they won’t.
“It could get very nasty,” said Cornelius Adebahr, a German foreign policy analyst who wrote a book on the Iran nuclear deal. “The Europeans really don’t know what to do.”
The standoff comes just days after EU countries upbraided the U.S. for not observing international norms by threatening to impose “extraterritorial” sanctions on companies and individuals connected to the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline linking Russia and Germany, which the U.S. is trying to block. But the snapback would put the shoe on the other foot: If the Europeans don’t comply, they could be the ones seen as violating an international agreement.
European diplomats say their bigger worry is what non-compliance on their part would mean for the future of the U.N. itself, just weeks before the organization celebrates its 75th anniversary. If Security Council members refuse to honor resolutions they themselves endorsed, such as the one that includes the Iranian snapback provision, the U.N.’s legitimacy would be severely impaired.
But even if the Europeans do follow the U.S. lead, the diplomats say, the U.N. would be hobbled going forward because Russia and China, feeling cheated by the U.S., would be unlikely to sign up to an accord like the Iran deal again.
The Europeans say that even if the U.S. has the legal right to trigger a snapback (which they dispute), Washington would be violating the spirit of the original agreement because the clause was designed to punish Iran only if it were in flagrant violation of the nuclear deal. Iran currently is violating the agreement by enriching uranium beyond allowed limits, but the Europeans argue that is only because the U.S. withdrew from the deal.
Despite the U.S. decision to pull out, the Trump administration argues it still has a legal right to exercise the snapback because the U.S. is named in the resolution codifying the deal, which has never been amended. The Europeans are disputing the U.S.’s legal arguments, but there is no court or other institution that has the authority to rule on the matter. Ultimately, the question of whether to follow the U.S. comes down to a political decision on the part of individual Security Council members.
Even John Bolton, Trump’s former national security council adviser and former U.S. ambassador the U.N., warned the administration it’s playing with fire.
“It’s too cute by half to say we’re in the nuclear deal for purposes we want but not for those we don’t,” Bolton, an avowed critic of both the Iran deal and the U.N., wrote in the Wall Street Journal this week.
Bolton, the author of a recent tell-all book about the Trump administration, argues that if Washington plows ahead, it risks triggering a chain reaction that could ultimately jeopardize the U.S.’s veto power in the Security Council, a tool it has often relied on to block resolutions it opposed on Israel and other issues.
“For the U.S., there is one point of high principle worth dying in a ditch for at the U.N.: Never impair the Security Council veto,” he wrote.
But supporters of the administration’s course say Europe needs to look beyond its distaste for Trump and recognize what even many EU countries acknowledge is the malign nature of the Iranian regime.
“It’s clear that the Europeans don’t want to be seen giving Trump a win on this issue,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an analyst on Iran with Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank. “It’s a question of style and substance.”
For now, the European strategy is to play for time. If Pompeo triggers the snapback, they’re likely to look for ways to delay a final decision until after the November 3 presidential election in the hope Joe Biden would reverse Trump’s course.
If Trump wins, however, Europe would be back to square one.
“What could the Europeans do?” Adebahr asked. “I’m not sure.”