On Saturday, September 19, 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that all UN sanctions against Iran were “back in effect” under the “snapback” provision in the JCPOA. The claim came 30 days after Pompeo notified the UN Security Council (UNSC) of what he called Iran’s “significant non-performance” with its obligations under the JCPOA – from which US President Donald Trump withdrew in May 2018.
Also, this attempt from the US has been fiercely opposed by the UK, France, and Germany, part of the initial 5+1 group of negotiating countries of the current agreement.
“The US has no authority to demand a snap-back in sanctions against Iran after quitting the 2015 nuclear deal two years ago”, the French Foreign Ministry said in a joint statement with Germany and the UK on Sunday, September 20, 2020. “We have worked tirelessly to preserve the nuclear agreement and remain committed to doing so,” the three countries’ foreign ministers said in the statement.
Since quitting the nuclear accord in May 2018, the Trump administration has intensified efforts to pressure the Islamic Republic, ratcheting up sanctions. But the U.S. moves have united partners like the UK, France, and Germany with Russia and China, who have sought to salvage the accord. That has left the U.S. isolated on the UN Security Council, with most nations saying America has no authority to demand the return of international sanctions since it’s no longer a party to the agreement by unilaterally withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018.
US’ explanation for new sanctions lies in the argument that the broader Security Council resolution 2231, paragraph 11, that enshrined the accord doesn’t require it to still be in the agreement, and that all of the United Nations resolutions on Iran that were in place before the accord – from a ban on arms deals to restrictions on the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile activity and its nuclear enrichment – should have gone back into effect on Saturday. The US expects all UN member states to comply with their obligations to implement sanctions, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in a statement late Saturday, September 19, 2020.
However, “it’s a matter of simple logic that if you are a participating state, you have to be participating,” said Larry Johnson, former assistant secretary-general for legal affairs at the United Nations.
During the 15-member UNSC vote, the US received support only from the Dominican Republic for its anti-Iran resolution, leaving it far short of the minimum nine “yes” votes required for adoption. Elsewhere in his remarks, the president thanked Security Council members for their objection to Washington’s “illegal and irrational” demands in August and September. He also commended the firm resistance of friendly countries Russia and China against America’s illogical moves at different junctures. “I once again tell the 4+1 group that if the five remaining countries in the nuclear deal fully comply with the deal and the articles we have committed to under this agreement, Iran will also return to its commitments completely,” Rouhani pointed out. He noted that Iran has reduced its JCPOA commitments because the remaining parties to the deal “did not give a positive response to us in the economic field,” referring to the Europeans’ failure to take practical strides to offset the sanctions that the US reinstated against Tehran after quitting the deal. Moreover, he said the Islamic Republic has always fulfilled its international commitments but it has never accepted to carry the burden of an unbalanced agreement unilaterally.
Reactions to US’ position
Addressing a cabinet session on Sunday, September 20th, Hassan Rouhani added that the US so-called maximum pressure on the Iranian nation in political and legal sectors has led to Washington’s “maximum isolation. We have always said that there is only one way of dealing with the Iranian nation and that is to show respect for the rights of the Iranian nation and speak to it with the language of respect,” he emphasized. “As Iran’s president, I announce that if the US wants to continue its bullying and take a practical step in line with its incorrect assertion – which has been rejected by all parties – that it has been able to restore [anti-Iran] resolutions [passed by the UNSC], he will be faced with our categorical response,” Iran’s president said. “It is quite clear that Iran has never yielded to US bullying at any juncture and will stand against the US bullying at this juncture as well,” he added.
“From now on, the United States’ words will not be taken for anything but [manifestations of] roguishness and nobody will cave in, while the consequences of making such remarks and taking such positions will [only] backfire on the US,” he also stated.
“Today we can say the “maximum pressure” of the US against the Iranian nation, politically and legally, has turned to “maximum isolation” for the US.” The president also addressed the five remaining signatories of the nuclear deal, reiterating the promise that if they fully adhere to their commitments under the accord, Iran will also fully implement its commitments.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry Mohammad Javad Zarif also said in a statement that the rage that characterizes Washington’s most recent threats against Iran is rooted in its repeated failures to align the rest of the world with its enmity towards the Islamic Republic.
Reacting to the US’ attempt to restoring UN sanctions against his country, Iran’s Pakistan envoy Seyed Mohammad Ali Hosseini said the country is challenging international law and regulations by taking such steps. “Challenging international law and regulation, not finding any multilateral bench to oppose Iran, resorting again to the defeated language of force and bullying, reckless driving in the wrong path,” he said.
Meanwhile Iran’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations Majid Takht Ravanchi said in a letter to the UN Secretary-General on Sunday that the US statements with regard to restoring sanctions against Iran are void of any legal effect in light of the US withdrawal from the JCPOA.
Meanwhile, China and Russia have both lashed out at the US. Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jun, in a letter to the UNSC on Saturday seen by Bloomberg News, said, “It is illegitimate for the US to demand the Security Council invoke the snapback mechanism” because it is no longer a participant of the deal.
On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin echoed the Chinese ambassador’s remarks by saying the US’s withdrawal from the nuclear accord has rendered whatever snapback demand on the part of Washington into a “baseless” request. Beijing follows up Iran’s nuclear issue closely, he added, reasserting that Washington has no right to return any sanction against the Islamic Republic. As such, Wang stated the international community decidedly opposes America’s attempt at resorting to the snapback mechanism and unilateralism, reiterating his country’s stance that the JCPOA contributes to peace and security in the Middle East region.
Also, Russian Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the International Organizations in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov tweeted on Sunday that such a position taken by the US was “unjustifiable.”
In addition, the UN Secretary-General said “uncertainty” prevents him from taking any action on a US declaration that all UN sanctions have been reinstated against Iran. “There would appear to be uncertainty whether or not the process … was indeed initiated,” Antonio Guterres said on Saturday in a letter to the UNSC.
According to Hamidreza Azizi, a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), there are clear reasons why the European powers, as well as Russia and China, oppose the US demand. “First, it would pave the way for the further arbitrary interpretation of international treaties by Washington, that may one day come back to haunt the Europeans themselves,” Azizi told Al Jazeera. “Second, Iran’s reaction to sanctions return would be to leave the JCPOA or even NPT,” he added, referring to the international nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that pursues nuclear disarmament.
As to why the US would engage in such a move based on shaky legal arguments, Azizi says its goal is political. “It wants to keep Iran under the international spotlight, continuing to introduce the Islamic Republic as a threat to international peace and security,” he said, adding that the US also wants to make Europeans more cautious in dealing with Iran.
According to Azizi, the snapback showdown is the latest and most evident sign of a rift in transatlantic relations. “Especially if Trump gets re-elected as the US president, this will work as fuel for further disagreements between the EU and the US,” he said, pointing out that Russia and China could use the opportunity to expand their influence in Iran and the wider region.