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Elephants in the Room

If Trump Hates Obama’s Nuclear Deal, Why Is He Letting Up on Iran?

Iran is stockpiling enriched uranium and may soon receive advanced weapons from Russia. Trump has an easy way to tighten the screws.

U.S. President Donald Trump signs new sanctions on Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, at the White House in Washington, DC, on  June 24, 2019.
U.S. President Donald Trump signs new sanctions on Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, at the White House in Washington, DC, on June 24, 2019. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

After nearly two years of stunning success imposing maximum pressure on Iran, U.S. President Donald Trump has been holding back on delivering a final blow and abolishing the ill-fated Iran nuclear deal. If he waits too long, he may inadvertently breathe new life into a deal he pledged to dismantle four years ago.

Ever since last summer, when Iran first exceeded the nuclear limits established by the 2015 agreement, Trump supporters in Congress have urged the president to exercise the United States’ right to respond to Iran’s transgression by restoring all United Nations restrictions on its nuclear, missile, and conventional arms programs. This right to fully restore sanctions, known as “snapback,” was marketed by former President Barack Obama at the time as an accountability fail-safe to ensure that the United States could always deny Iran the strategic benefits of the nuclear deal should the regime breach its own commitments.

By late fall, with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reporting that Iran was not cooperating with an investigation into possible undeclared nuclear material and activities inside the country, the furor on Capitol Hill grew more intense. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz held up Stephen Biegun’s nomination for deputy secretary of state until the State Department confirmed in writing what legal experts had already opined: The United States can use its right to snapback at any time.The Trump administration’s hesitation to unilaterally snap back sanctions allowed Iran to have its cake and eat it, too.

Despite this acknowledgement, the Trump administration opted for a surprising strategy: not making use of the snapback prerogative. Instead, the focus shifted to fixing another piece of the Iran deal: the scheduled end of the United Nations arms embargo.

The IAEA’s report this month that Iran has tripled its stockpile of enriched uranium since November demonstrated that the Trump administration’s hesitation to unilaterally snap back sanctions allowed Iran to have its cake and eat it, too—that is, to fully breach the agreement while remaining on track to reap strategic benefits far beyond the end of the arms embargo.

If Trump was waiting for more justification to snap back sanctions and permanently end Obama’s nuclear deal, he received it when the IAEA reported that Iran had also denied inspectors access to multiple sites connected to undeclared nuclear material and activities. That put Iran not only in breach of the agreement but in breach of its most basic safeguard obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, to which it is a signatory.

But instead of leveraging the IAEA reports to press for snapback, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his special envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, remained focused on trans-Atlantic coalition politics—building support for a new United Nations Security Council resolution to extend the arms embargo on Iran this summer.

Though well-intentioned, the strategy won’t work. Russia has already declared its intent to veto any new Security Council resolution to extend the embargo. Pompeo recently testified before Congress that Russia is preparing to sell advanced arms to Iran the minute the embargo expires.The snapback mechanism was designed to protect the rights of the United States and its European allies from attempts by Iran, Russia, or China to block sanctions.

Even if Pompeo could persuade Russia to support a temporary extension of the arms embargo, that alone would not be worth allowing the rest of the Obama nuclear deal to survive—because the deal gives Iran potential pathways to nuclear weapons as key restrictions expire.

On the other hand, if America snaps back sanctions at the Security Council, all restrictions on Iran return indefinitely: the arms embargo, missiles, nuclear restrictions, and the demand that Iran halt all enrichment activities on its own soil. Another bonus: Russia would have no veto power over snapback since the mechanism was designed to protect the rights of the United States and its European allies from attempts by Iran, Russia, or China to block the reimposition of sanctions.

Pompeo, for his part, may be concerned by reports that Russia would challenge America’s right to snapback, reinterpreting the plain language of the existing Security Council resolution to claim the United States forfeited its rights when it withdrew from the agreement. This concern echoes warnings issued by the Iran deal’s opponents in 2015 that any future fight over snapback would be a political struggle, not a legal one. What, after all, is the practical effect of a snapback that is not recognized as legitimate by the rest of the Security Council?

The Trump administration’s strategy then might be to avoid a showdown inside a divided Security Council and, instead, do all it can to pressure European allies to take the final step. In that context, the administration’s focus on the arms embargo might make sense. The logic: get Europe to agree that extending the arms embargo is a trans-Atlantic security priority and, following an inevitable Russian veto, make the case that snapback is the only remaining option.

If one of the European countries that are party to the deal with Iran triggers the snapback, most of the Security Council and, more importantly, the U.N. Secretariat may be more likely to recognize its legitimacy in the face of Russian and Chinese objections. If the Secretariat affirms that snapback occurred, it will have to resuscitate prior resolutions and sanctions committees governing Iran—changes that will be posted on the U.N. website for all nations to observe. Russia and China might still reject snapback, but Washington’s response to Moscow’s and Beijing’s actions would be anchored in binding Security Council resolutions.

European leaders, however, have done all they can to wait out the Trump administration in the hopes a new president will arrive in 2021 and return to the original deal. On the heels of a surprise coronavirus travel ban aimed at Europe, these leaders aren’t looking to do Trump any favors. Waiting until mid-summer to call a vote on an arms embargo resolution only to see the Europeans balk on snapback leaves little time for the administration to respond before the November election.

The snapback process takes 30 days to complete—a period that will be filled with loud threats from an Iranian regime desperate to undermine Trump’s chances of reelection.The period will be filled with loud threats from an Iranian regime desperate to undermine Trump’s chances of reelection. Does anyone believe the president’s political advisers will favor a snapback that close to Election Day?

The outcome, then, may be not only the expiration of the arms embargo, but the survival of the nuclear deal with all its flaws—a result that would greatly undermine the past two years of maximum pressure and decrease the incentive for Iran to negotiate a new deal.

If Pompeo believes that Europe, for its own internal politics, must see a vote to extend the arms embargo fail before agreeing to snapback, then he should schedule that vote and proceed to snapback without delay. The United Kingdom, having just lost a British soldier to an Iranian proxy attack in Iraq, may be willing to act sooner than later. We must not waste another moment to save the United States—and the world—from what Trump rightly calls the worst deal ever made.

Richard Goldberg is a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He served on Capitol Hill, on the U.S. National Security Council, and as the governor of Illinois’s chief of staff. Twitter: @rich_goldberg

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