Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will start a procedure Thursday afternoon at the United Nations in New York to “snapback” sanctions erased by the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA). If he is successful, the Iran deal will be essentially dead.
The mechanism known as “snapback” was negotiated and included in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which allows for sanctions and other restrictions to be immediately re-imposed on Iran if it was seen to be breaking the compact. It was that resolution that endorsed the JCPoA – and the mechanism was long demanded by U.S. lawmakers to be included in any deal.
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Following last week’s decisive defeat of a U.S. draft resolution to re-impose an arms embargo on Iran, which expires in October as part of the deal, Pompeo indicated he would travel to New York to officially begin the process to snapback sanctions. Six resolutions would have to be re-imposed accordingly and would include a prohibition on all testing and development of nuclear-capable missiles, travel bans and asset freezes on regime officials who were previously sanctioned.
“Today I am directing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to notify the U.N. Security Council that the United States intends to restore virtually all the previously suspended United Nations sanctions on Iran,” President Trump said in a news conference on Wednesday. “It’s a snapback.”
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While Russia, China and other members of the JCPoA are clamoring to look for ways to halt snapback, it would seem they are fighting a losing battle.
But how will the whole process work and can the U.S. succeed? Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a think tank in Washington D.C., was from 2019/2020 the director for Countering Iranian Weapons of Mass Destruction for the White House National Security Council. He also was a senior policy adviser to former U.S. Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois. During his time in the Senate Goldberg was the leading architect of the toughest sanctions imposed on the regime in Tehran.
Goldberg, who has written extensively on the process of how snapback, including a recent Q&A on how the process will work, spoke to Fox News about the intricacies of how snapback may come to pass in the coming days.
1. What is the difference between the JCPoA and U.N. Resolution 2231?
UNSCR 2231 endorsed the JCPoA but never mandated members to implement it. It does, however, mandate restrictions on Iran for a limited period of time and mandates the snapback to prevent those restrictions from expiring if Iran misbehaves.
Why is it constructed this way? Well, it makes sense when you think about it. The Security Council imposed restrictions on Iran over several years and those restrictions can’t just go away just because eight parties sign some side political agreement. You need to modify Security Council resolutions to modify international restrictions. And so the Security Council obliged the request to help the parties get a deal, but it built in the snapback as an institutional guarantee – because no sideshow political agreement can ever supersede the authority of the Council.
The JCPoA binds the few states that are part of the political agreement while a UNSCR binds all members of the U.N.
The U.S. may have lost its rights to use the mechanisms of the JCPoA political agreement but who cares – you can’t strip the U.S. of its permanent member rights granted by a binding Security Council resolution, which supersedes the JCPoA’s authority.
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2. What happens once the U.S. triggers snapback?
The Security Council has 30 days to pass a resolution to stop snapback from happening. If no member of the Council puts such a resolution forward within 10 days of the U.S. notification, the president of the Council must. We can expect China and Russia to play all kinds of games but in the end, if a resolution to stop the U.S. snapback doesn’t pass in 30 days, America wins.
3. Critics say since the U.S. left the JCPoA it cannot legally call for snapback? Is there any stopping it? And if so who can stop it?
China and Russia will do or say anything to stop the snapback for one simple reason: they want to sell weapons to Iran; they want the arms embargo to expire. The Europeans, meanwhile, are suffering from a split personality disorder – saying they want to extend the arms embargo but also saying they don’t want to end the Iran deal.
The straight reading of the U.N. Security Council resolution makes it undeniable that the United States has the right to trigger the snapback. Everyone from Barack Obama to Joe Biden to John Kerry told the American people we could snapback at any time even if every other country opposed it. They were correct. Other countries may challenge that fact for their own political agendas but unless they’re willing to blow up the Security Council, the United States as a permanent member has the procedural power to force the snapback through.
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4. What is the ability of other nations to just say “No” when the U.S. says snapback?
If the process is followed as described in UNSCR 2231, those states that oppose the snapback are welcome to vote for the resolution to ignore the U.S. complaint but if the U.S. vetoes the resolution, snapback is a done deal.
The question is whether states will knowingly ignore the text of a binding Security Council resolution and try to ignore the U.S. complaint. That would lead to a number of nuanced procedural fights that, if 75 years of Security Council precedent is followed, should still result in a U.S. win. If states decide to not only contravene UNSCR 2231 but deny the U.S. its rights as a permanent member, we would enter unchartered territory where the future utility of the Council is in doubt.
5. As we understand it the JCPoA will die if sanctions are put back in place on Iran. Is that the case?
The JCPoA is effectively dead already; we just haven’t had the funeral yet. It’s important to note that as we have this debate, Iran is denying international inspectors access to suspected undeclared nuclear sites in Iran and won’t explain why it’s hiding undeclared nuclear material – these are sites and materials that Iran apparently was hiding from the world throughout the JCPoA – these nuclear breaches have nothing to do with the U.S. maximum pressure campaign – instead, they prove that Iran was lying all along, that we never should have scheduled any restrictions on Iran to expire and that snapback is appropriate to hold Iran accountable for its breach of trust. Snapback will restore prior Security Council resolutions on Iran so that all the long-term restrictions, like the arms embargo, remain in place indefinitely.