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Document of the Week: U.S. Pushes Doomed Iran Resolution at U.N.

Trump’s Iran gambit is sweeping, punitive, and has little chance of success.

The Iranian military launches a missile during a naval exercise on June 18. The Iranian navy successfully tested new short- and long-range cruise missiles, coinciding with a rebound in tension with the United States, which seeks to extend the arms embargo against Iran.
The Iranian military launches a missile during a naval exercise on June 18. The Iranian navy successfully tested new short- and long-range cruise missiles, coinciding with a rebound in tension with the United States, which seeks to extend the arms embargo against Iran. Iranian Army/Handout /Latin America News Agency/Reuters

A day after the United States’ Iran envoy, Brian Hook, announced his resignation, throwing Washington’s Iran policy into disarray, the Trump administration plans to forge ahead with a doomed diplomatic campaign to adopt a U.N. resolution that seeks to extend a U.N. arms embargo on Iran scheduled to expire in October.

The draft resolution—which has not been made public yet and which we are posting here as our Document of the Week—is a classic piece of Trumpian diplomacy. It is bold, aiming to impose sweeping legal obligations on countries to confront and seize vessels carrying Iranian cargo. It is punitive, looking to subject multiple Iranian individuals and entities, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to an asset freeze and travel ban. And it is expected to secure little, if any, support from key Europeans allies, who feel the initiative would undercut the terms of the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which pledged to lift the embargo if Iran agreed to a series of verifiable steps to limit its nuclear program.

The United States is expected to formally table the resolution on Monday, with plans to put it to a vote on Tuesday, according to U.N.-based diplomats. China and Russia have made clear they would veto the U.S. resolution. But they may not have to. Washington lacks the minimum nine votes it needs for a resolution to be adopted in the Security Council.

During his tenure, Hook asserted that if the U.S. resolution failed, the administration would pursue another approach to preserving the U.N. arms embargo. Under the terms of the Iran nuclear pact, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), any one of the participants in the nuclear pact—Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, the United States, Iran, or the European Union—has the right to invoke a snapback provision, which would reimpose a broad range of sanctions, including the arms embargo, if they determine that another party has not met its obligations.

China and Russia have made it clear they believe the United States has no legal standing to invoke the snapback provision, as President Donald Trump formally withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018. The three European signatories—Britain, France, and Germany—issued a statement in June that they would not support a U.S. effort to reimpose sanctions, saying that such a decision “would be incompatible with our current efforts to preserve the JCPOA.”

“We firmly believe that any unilateral attempt to trigger UN Sanctions snapback would have serious adverse consequences in the [U.N. Security Council],” they stated. The Europeans intend to keep a unilateral European arms embargo in place at least until 2023. They would like to begin negotiations with China, Iran, Russia, the United States, and other signatories of the nuclear deal aimed at containing Iran’s arms trade, but they believe that a decision to extend the U.N. arms embargo would run contrary to their pledge to lift it under the nuclear pact.

The State Department argues that the United States—which is named as a participant in the nuclear deal in a U.N. Security Council resolution that remains in force—has legal standing to invoke the snapback provision, even though it pulled out of the accord two years ago.

Hook’s replacement, Elliott Abrams, who was convicted of lying to Congress in 1991 about the Iran-Contra affair and was later pardoned by then-President George H.W. Bush, has not said yet whether he will follow the Hook playbook.

But it is becoming abundantly clear that the Trump administration is unlikely to meet its ostensible goal of renegotiating a new nuclear deal with Iran before the November presidential election. That won’t be Abrams’s only festering sore: He’ll continue in his role as U.S. special representative for Venezuela, where the government has outlasted Trump administration efforts to install an opposition lawmaker, Juan Guaidó, as president.

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

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