Aug 20, 2020 - World

U.S. demands "snapback" on Iran sanctions, setting up showdown at UN

Pompeo today at the UN Security Council. Photo: Mike Segar/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. has officially demanded that sanctions on Iran lifted under the 2015 nuclear deal be brought back into force, setting the stage for a major diplomatic showdown at the UN Security Council.

Why it matters: The U.S. controversially withdrew from the Iran deal in 2018, but is now invoking its terms in an attempt to restore sanctions on Iran — and possibly to destroy the deal before a potential Biden administration could salvage it. This move is opposed by all of the deal's other signatories.

Driving the news: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met in New York on Thursday with UN Secretary General António Guterres and the UN ambassador from Indonesia, which holds the Security Council's rotating presidency. He presented both with the written "snapback" request.

  • The snapback request initiates a 30-day consultation period, during which time an unprecedented legal and political fight is expected at the Security Council.
  • The move comes days after the U.S. was voted down at the Council as it attempted to extend an international arms embargo on Iran.
  • The U.S. says the "snapback" move is necessary to prevent Iran from buying arms on the international market.
  • France, Germany and the U.K., swiftly issued a statement opposing the U.S. move and questioning its legitimacy. They also restated their commitment to preserving the deal.
  • Pompeo claimed the Europeans “sided with the Ayatollahs even though they told the U.S. privately they want to see the arms embargo extended."

Between the lines: The deal says any of the signatories — the U.S., Russia, China, France, Germany and the U.K. — can demand sanctions be reimposed automatically if they believe Iran has committed substantial violations. No country can veto such a move.

  • Russia and China contend that the U.S. gave up its right to reimpose the sanctions when it withdrew from the deal. That view is shared by others on the council, and even by John Bolton, the hawkish former national security adviser.
  • The U.S., on the other hand, claims it has the right to initiate the snapback mechanism because it is a party to the Security Council resolution that endorsed the nuclear deal and included the snapback mechanism.
  • U.S. officials believe that the renewal of international sanctions will lead Iran to withdraw from the nuclear deal.

What they're saying: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif sent a letter to the Indonesian ambassador warning that the U.S. move could have “dangerous consequences,” and calling on Security Council members to counter it.

  • Russia’s ambassador to the UN said the U.S. move was "non-existent" in Russia's view, because the U.S. had no right to make it. Nevertheless the Russians want to hold an open session of the Security Council to discuss the crisis.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a rare voice of support, saying, "I commend the United States for its decision."

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