The ‘Silver Lining’ to Trump Pulling Out of the Iran Deal

The White House has the legal authority to compel countries to reinstate U.N. sanctions on Iran. So why has it chosen not to exercise it?

The U.N. Security Council debates sanctioning Iran at U.N. headquarters in New York in March 2007. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)
The U.N. Security Council debates sanctioning Iran at U.N. headquarters in New York in March 2007. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration has decided to withhold its power to compel the U.N. Security Council to reinstate wide-ranging U.N. sanctions on Iran, including a series of measures that would ban Tehran from testing its ballistic missiles, according to senior U.S. officials.

The move underscores the Trump administration’s preference for going it alone and imposing instead a range of old and new U.S. sanctions aimed at inflicting maximum economic pain on Iran and its business partners. It could also mean that while President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran deal, he has stopped short of blowing it up altogether.

It remains unclear whether the United States is steering clear of the U.N. Security Council because it wants to avoid a lengthy and bitter fight to dismantle the nuclear pact or it is seeking to keep in place the restrictions on Iran’s ability to advance its nuclear program.

Trump said Tuesday that he decided to withdraw from the landmark 2015 nuclear pact, which is formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, calling it “defective at its core.” But Washington’s key European allies have defended the agreement, saying it is effectively containing Iran’s nuclear program. The International Atomic Energy Agency, meanwhile, has repeatedly concluded that Iran is in compliance with the pact.

Under the terms of a July 2015 U.N. Security Council resolution, participants in the Iran agreement have the right to invoke a so-called snapback provision that would reinstate more than half a dozen U.N. sanctions resolutions dating back to 2006.

To activate the snapback, though, the United States would have to make the case that Iran is in breach of its commitments under the deal and go through an elaborate dispute process that would potentially highlight Washington’s diplomatic isolation. The United States, however, would not need to persuade any other countries of the merits of its claim to trigger the resumption of sanctions.

Still, U.S. officials appear unwilling to do so.

Shortly before Trump announced plans to withdraw from the pact, National Security Advisor John Bolton suggested to reporters that the United States would not turn to the U.N. Security Council to remake the nuclear accord because “we’re out of the deal.”

“At this time, there’s no plan to go up to New York” to push for a snapback of sanctions, a senior State Department official explains. “The United States is out of the deal … so we’re not going to use a provision as if we were still a participant in the deal to invoke the snapback.”

The senior State Department official says the ultimate goal of the United States is “to reach a point where we sit down again with the Iranians and negotiate a new deal.”

“I don’t think we’re at that point today, or we won’t be tomorrow, but, yes, that’s the ultimate goal — to lay the groundwork for getting everyone back to the table and negotiating a new deal,” the official adds.

But European powers that negotiated with the Iranians for more than a decade are doubtful that a better deal can be struck.

Washington’s U.N. counterparts view the U.S. decision to ignore the Security Council as a sign of the White House’s deepening retreat from multilateralism since Trump reshuffled his cabinet, appointing Iran hawks, including Bolton and new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to the core of his national security team.

“I believe the U.S. position on this is precisely [intended] to ignore the council,” one senior European diplomat says. “It sees no reason to come back to it, even less so given the decision to withdraw” from the nuclear pact.

Dennis Ross, a former Middle East envoy under both Democratic and Republican presidents, says the provision was designed to allow the United States to single-handedly force the reimposition of U.N. sanctions even if other countries on the Security Council disagreed, Ross says. “It didn’t matter if everyone opposed us,” he says.

The Trump administration, he adds, may have decided to evade the Security Council out of “a desire not to expose how alone we were.”

“It would have been a very public spectacle at the Security Council meeting and us being completely alone,” he says.

David Albright, the founder of the Institute for Science and International Security, says the approach gives the Trump administration a chance to “ratchet up sanctions while keeping the existing limitations on Iran’s nuclear activities in place. This would give you a few months without the whole world screaming at you.”

Tess Bridgeman, the lead White House lawyer on the Iran nuclear talks from 2014 to 2015, says the decision to lay off U.N. sanctions may turn out to be a “silver lining” to the president’s announcement to withdraw.

“So long as no one pulls the snapback trigger, the basic structure of the deal can continue,” she says. “It gives legs to the idea that the deal could limp along for a few years, so long as Iran maintains the moral high ground and doesn’t do something catastrophic, like kick out the inspectors.”

Bridgeman and other legal experts say there is a compelling legal case to be made that the United States has forgone its right to snap back sanctions on Iran since Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal.

“I don’t think they can use the snapback anymore because the president has declared that the U.S. is no longer a participant in the deal,” says Larry Johnson, a former U.N. lawyer who now teaches at Columbia Law School. “In order to invoke the snapback provision, you have to be a participant.”

Bridgeman agrees that “there is now a strong argument that we can no longer avail ourselves of snapback.” But she concedes that there is enough legal wiggle room in the resolution that the United States could present a good-faith argument that it retains the rights to reimpose sanctions in the future.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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