The US unilaterally declared on September 20 that the United Nations (UN) sanctions targeting Iran are once again in force. Washington justified its move by claiming it had the authority to do so as an original signatory of the joint comprehensive plan of action (JCPOA), the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and other major powers.
The US move, however, will likely increase its international isolation and tensions with Iran in the lead-up to the US presidential elections in November. Moreover, the US decision is widely seen as another diplomatic defeat, as 13 of the 15 UN Security Council (UNSC) members played down Washington’s interpretation of the JCPOA and its right to reimpose sanctions in the name of the UN.
The latest stand-off started in mid-August when the US suffered a humiliating defeat at the UNSC. Members of the Council rejected the US resolution on extending the UN arms embargo on Iran, which is set to expire in October. Despite obvious failure, the US then stubbornly decided to push on with the issue, saying that it will try to prevent the embargo from expiring by using what is known as the “snapback” provision in Security Council Resolution 2231.
US representative at the UNSC, Kelly Craft, attacked other members of the Council for rejecting the US resolution.
Following the attempt, US representative at the UNSC, Kelly Craft, attacked other members of the Council for rejecting the US resolution using very strong and undiplomatic language. Craft stated that her only regret was that “other members of the council have lost their way and now find themselves standing in the company of terrorists,” while US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused France, Britain, and Germany of “siding with Iran’s ayatollahs.”
The controversial US move has triggered numerous negative reactions and a large majority of international lawyers agree that US arguments are highly questionable and legally unfounded. For them as well as other members of UNSC, the US withdrew from the deal in 2018, meaning that it is no longer a participant, and thus cannot use the “snapback” dispute mechanism.
Accordingly, the termination of US participation has been explicitly admitted by key US officials, including President Donald Trump, who issued an executive order in May 2018 called “Ceasing US Participation in the JCPOA.” This indicates that the US does not have any responsibilities, rights, nor obligations related to the deal—a stance that has been repeatedly reiterated by the remaining parties.
According to Matthew Bunn, Professor of the Practice of Energy, National Security, and Foreign Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, the US position is totally unjustified. He believes Iran has stepped beyond the agreed limits because of the US withdrawal, as it was in full compliance with the agreement until then.
“Though the JCPOA is a political agreement, not a treaty, under both international common law and the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, when one party to an agreement violates it (as the United States did), other parties have the right to take proportionate counter-action,” Bunn told Inside Arabia.
Ever since pulling out from the deal, Washington unilaterally reimposed various sanctions as part of its maximum pressure campaign against Iran.
Indeed, ever since pulling out from the deal, Washington unilaterally reimposed various sanctions as part of its maximum pressure campaign against Iran. Yet, for a long time, Tehran remained committed to the deal and only gradually reduced its compliance with its obligations. Even then, Iran was not walking on uncharted territory but played by the book, as paragraph 36 of the JCPOA leaves Iran the possibility to reduce its commitments in case of partial or substantial violation of the accord by other parties of the deal.
Furthermore, Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency recently resolved a year and a half-long dispute over an Agency investigation into possible undeclared nuclear materials and activities. The agreement also clearly shows Tehran’s commitment to fulfilling its safeguard obligations under the deal, while sending an encouraging signal to the rest of the world.
Speaking to Inside Arabia, Professor Gawdat Bahgat of the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies (NESA), said that it is obvious the Trump Administration would like to kill the JCPOA before November; this way, if Biden wins, he will not have a chance to rejoin it. “The Administration would like Iran to ‘over-react’ by either starting a military operation or withdrawing from the nuclear deal,” Bahgat said.
While Iranian hardliners have often expressed their dissatisfaction with Iran’s mild response to US violation of the nuclear deal, it is likely that Tehran will avoid any extreme counter moves and it will preserve its strategic patience until November. According to Daniel Wagner, CEO of Country Risk Solutions and an author on Middle Eastern affairs, Iran does not appear to be in any hurry to terminate the JCPOA, particularly given the pending US presidential election. “If Tehran was inclined to terminate the agreement, it would have already done so and any action in that regard would presumably occur after January 21,” Wagner told Inside Arabia.
It is likely that Tehran will avoid any extreme counter moves and it will preserve its strategic patience until November.
Professor Bahgat also agrees that Iranian leaders will be very guarded in their response until a clear winner emerges in the US election, hoping that Joe Biden, if victorious, will re-join the nuclear deal. However, Bahgat noted that it is unlikely the old nuclear deal will be accepted, and it is probable Iran will make some concessions in return for lifting the sanctions. “Meanwhile, Iran is strengthening ties with Moscow and Beijing, basically telling the US and Europe that Tehran has other options,” he added.
With Russia taking over the presidency of the UN Security Council, Bunn expects that Moscow will do what it can to prevent snapback from occurring, though this may be difficult. Nevertheless, Washington may face some additional procedural problems at the Council.
There is little doubt, according to Wagner, that China and Russia will seek to block the reinstitution of appropriate UN committees that will oversee the implementation of renewed sanctions against Iran. “The outcome will depend on the degree to which the US, [and] any European nations inclined to, seek an extension, and any other countries form a meaningful alliance to support such action,” he added.
EU leaders repeatedly said that US arguments for reinstating the sanctions have no legal ground, adding that any attempt by the US to impose sanctions against the countries not complying with the UN are also void.
Additionally, Bahgat notes that while Britain, France, and Germany expect that Tehran should make concessions over its missile program and regional policy, the deal was working fine with regard to Iran’s nuclear program. However, even though European governments oppose US unilateral sanctions, he explained that European corporations are afraid of losing access to the US market or being penalized by the US. In fact, Europe has not done much to counter US unilateral sanctions in the past and once again they may act as a barking dog that never bites.
The same could be said for Chinese companies, as they also significantly reduced their investments and businesses in Iran. This means European governments will oppose the US sanctions but will not be able to force European corporations to do business with Iran, while both Moscow and Beijing are likely to take a “wait and see” approach until November 3, according to Bahgat.
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