The Trump administration’s Iran strategy will face a key test this week as the United States calls for a vote at the United Nations on its resolution to extend an arms embargo against the Islamic Republic.
If the resolution fails — which experts say is the most likely scenario — the Trump administration has threatened to invoke snapback sanctions, which supporters of the Iran nuclear deal fear will be the agreement’s death knell.
The gambit also risks further alienating the United States from its allies, which continue to support the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal and have rebuffed the Trump administration’s so-called maximum pressure campaign against Tehran.
At issue is a U.N. Security Council resolution that was passed in 2015 in support of the nuclear deal between Iran and several world powers that President Trump withdrew the United States from in 2018. Under the resolution, a ban on imports and exports of conventional weapons to and from Iran is set to lift Oct. 18.
This past week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Security Council would vote in the coming week on the U.S. resolution to extend the embargo.
“The proposal we put forward is eminently reasonable,” Pompeo said at a press briefing. “One way or another, we will do the right thing. We will ensure that the arms embargo is extended.”
But Russia and China, which wield veto power in the U.N. Security Council, have already rejected the U.S. bid.
In the face of likely defeat, Pompeo has threatened another tactic: argue the United States remains a participant in the nuclear deal as defined by the Security Council resolution despite Trump having withdrawn from the agreement. Doing so could allow the United States to invoke a snapback of all U.N. sanctions that were in place before the nuclear deal, thereby extending the arms embargo.
“We’re deeply aware that snapback is an option that’s available to the United States, and we’re going to do everything within America’s power to ensure that that arms embargo is extended,” Pompeo said. “I’m confident that we will be successful.”
The United States would have to trigger snapback sanctions by Sept. 17 at the latest to have them in place by the time the arms embargo expires.
In an additional wrinkle, the State Department’s top Iran envoy, Brian Hook, announced Thursday his departure from the administration. He will be replaced by Elliott Abrams, who has been the administration’s top Venezuela envoy since 2019.
Over the last several months, Hook has traveled the world seeking to build support for the U.S. resolution to extend the arms embargo, with little apparent success. In a virtual appearance at the Aspen Security Forum the day before his resignation, Hook stressed support for extending the embargo among Gulf nations and Israel, adding that “no one thinks that what is missing from the Middle East are more Iranian weapons.”
Abrams, an Iran hard-liner, is perhaps most known for pleading guilty to withholding information from Congress during the Iran-Contra affair. He was later pardoned by President George H. W. Bush.
“Hook’s departure and replacement by Abrams — a hardline, veteran Middle East and Latin America hand — raises the risks surrounding the final few months of Trump’s first term,” the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group said in a note to clients and the media this past week.
The firm previously said last month that the United States invoking snapback sanctions “will raise overall tension with Iran and introduce new uncertainty into the calculations of the Iranian leadership” and “could induce Iran to take more risky action in the nuclear realm, or retaliate for JCPOA snapback in Iraq or the region.”
The arms embargo itself has bipartisan support among U.S. lawmakers as well as support among the United States’s European allies.
But the Trump administration’s approach as it seeks to rally international support for renewing the embargo has rankled those same allies.
“Other JCPOA signatories do not necessarily like to see the arms embargo be lifted, but they view Trump’s actions as dishonest and aimed at simply killing the JCPOA,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
A European diplomat echoed that position to The Hill.
“In general we would support the arms embargo, but we don’t like some of the unilateral sanctions that the U.S. are imposing on Iran,” the diplomat said.
In a phone call Friday with French President Emmanuel Macron, Trump discussed “the importance of extending the U.N. arms embargo on Iran,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement.
When Pompeo took his argument for extending the sanctions directly to the Security Council in a June speech, representatives of Britain, France and Germany expressed angst at both the expiration of the embargo and the United States’s threat to invoke snapback sanctions.
“It is very unfortunate that the United States left the JCPOA and by doing this actually violated international law,” Germany’s U.N. ambassador, Christoph Heusgen, said at the June virtual meeting.
Whether the United States snapping back sanctions ultimately kills the nuclear deal depends on how Iran responds, said Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
“Everything will depend on what the Iranian response will be, and it’s a little hard to predict,” she said. “I still think they’ll just scream and yell and say it’s illegitimate and that they still intend to return to the deal if a future U.S. administration does, especially if they have really strong support from the Russians and the Chinese.”
It’s also possible, she said, that even if the Trump administration claims victory in reimposing sanctions, other countries will ignore the sanctions, particularly Russia and China, which are the countries most likely to sell Iran weapons.
“Other members of the Security Council will reject the U.S. standing to do that since the U.S. announced that it was no longer a participant to the JCPOA, even if it wants to pretend otherwise now for this purpose,” she said. “So it’s going to be a colossal mess.”
A U.N. Security Council diplomat similarly raised the possibility that member countries wouldn’t reimpose sanctions regardless of the U.S. efforts.
“They could try to get the U.N. to impose additional sanctions, as the snapback mechanism calls for, but if member states don’t want to do that, they wouldn’t impose those sanctions,” the diplomat told The Hill.
Still, the Center for a New American Security’s Goldenberg argued the 2015 Security Council resolution is a “key piece of the architecture that keeps what’s left of the JCPOA alive.”
“If you break it, you might just collapse the entire deal. Nobody really knows what will happen,” he said. “The administration’s position is that lifting the arms embargo is absolutely unacceptable. But their real position is, we want to break the JCPOA, and we think we can use this to do it.”