Trump Misses Being Part of the Iran Deal
His administration wants to trigger the JCPOA’s snapback mechanism, but he probably can’t do that from the outside.
The Trump administration is planning to forge ahead this week with a move aimed at extending the arms embargo on Iran waged by the U.N. Security Council. Otherwise, the sanctions would be set to expire in October. His move is likely to fail, since it lacks the backing of key countries with the power to veto the initiative, chiefly Russia and China. But that hasn’t deterred Washington, which has declared that, should its resolution fail, it would trigger the “snapback” mechanism embedded within the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The snapback mechanism is intended to automatically restore the U.N. sanctions on Iran that existed prior to 2015 in case of violations. For those who wish to see the JCPOA’s limits on the Iranian nuclear program sustained, the U.S. move is a bad idea. Here’s why.
For one, China and Russia are not on board. They would likely veto such a resolution. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, has acknowledged this fact, stating last week that the United States had little hope it could bring Russia and China around. The two countries would likely benefit should the arms embargo expire, since they would be key candidates to supply Iran with new arms and weapons systems. Moscow and Beijing have long-standing relationships with Tehran that include joint military initiatives and technological transfer. In late 2019, amid rising tensions between the United States and the Islamic Republic, China, Iran, and Russia held joint military drills in the Persian Gulf. More generally, neither country is in a rush to renew sanctions on Iran. In early July, Tehran announced that it was negotiating a 25-year strategic partnership with Beijing, which (if finalized and implemented) would include massive Chinese long-term investment of up to $400 billion. Similarly, the Iranians and the Russians are also developing an arrangement that would include the extension of an existing agreement facilitating the Russian transfer of weapons and other goods to Iran for years to come.
In any event, Russia and China may not even be put in a position to veto the resolution since, as of now, it does not enjoy a simple majority of 9 out of 15. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom also stand opposed to the U.S. move. These three actors, known as the E3, have a more complicated approach to the question of the embargo and its extension. Although E3 members are concerned with Iranian violations of the JCPOA, as well as the implementation of the nuclear safeguards the country agreed to, they are also fed up with American efforts to torpedo the deal. The E3 are eager to preserve the JCPOA, or its legal shell, possibly until a new U.S. administration is sworn in. As such, they’ve tried to find a common ground on key disputes regarding the JCPOA when possible. They aren’t likely to support the U.S. resolution, although they’ve worked around the clock to find a middle ground pleasing to both Washington and the Beijing-Moscow bloc. Significantly, the European Union’s embargoes on conventional arms exports and missile technology to Iran remain in place until 2023 regardless of what happens by October.
There’s also the issue of whether the United States even has a right to trigger the JCPOA’s snapback mechanism, since it left the deal in 2018. The United States says that it does, but other JCPOA members in the Security Council (Germany is currently a nonpermanent member) dispute this claim. It is possible that they will simply ignore such a U.S. move. The Trump administration is thus likely to learn a lesson the Reagan administration was taught in 1982: Regardless of how flawed an international institution may be, once a country withdraws from that institution, it loses any ability to influence it from within.
In 1982, the United States, under Ronald Reagan, suspended its participation in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The decision was made to reassess participation in the agency following a vote at the IAEA General Conference that September to reject the credentials of the Israeli delegates. The Iraqi delegation instigated the vote in retaliation for an Israeli raid the previous year that destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor Osirak. Operation Babylon, as the raid was code-named, significantly set back the Iraqi nuclear program and did so as what would become a devastating eight-year war with Iran was in its initial stages. Two hours before the vote to reject the Israelis’ credentials, the U.S. delegation received orders to leave the building should the vote pass. The vote passed, and the Americans left.
Once out of the agency, the administration quickly regretted it. For the agency, Washington’s withdrawal translated into the suspension of U.S. financial contributions to the IAEA, jeopardizing its ability to function. Washington’s contribution was expected to cover 25 percent of the agency’s total annual budget of $82 million planned for 1983—$52 million of which was allocated to overseeing safeguards. But the U.S. withdrawal was surprisingly short-lived. It was followed by the establishment of an interagency group tasked with performing a three-month policy reassessment, which was never concluded. Instead, Washington resumed full participation in the IAEA in February 1983, once its Board of Governors clarified Israel’s status. In a report to Congress, the administration explained that it took leave from the agency due to “the seriously disturbing trend by some IAEA member states to introduce extraneous and divisive political issues” to the agency. However, the administration argued, given the IAEA’s unique role, and the lack of alternatives for its safeguards system, it had decided to resume participation.
Although Trump promised to make deals, it is in fact withdrawing from international organizations and agreements, not building them, that has become a hallmark of his foreign policy. Iran serves as a case in point. After withdrawing from the JCPOA without a Plan B, the Trump administration is at a loss now that it needs to extend the arms embargo. Some analysts believe that the Trump team, well aware of the likely failure at the Security Council, is in fact racing to create “facts on the ground” ahead of a possible presidential victory by Democratic candidate Joe Biden, aiming to make it as difficult as possible to revive a thoroughly beaten Iran deal. A major problem with Trump’s approach is the price tag it might create. In addition to potentially leading Iran to further dial up its nuclear activities and shrink the breakout time—the amount of time needed to build enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon—Trump risks further eroding American credibility, creating chaos, and damaging the ability of the Security Council to function.
Ariane Tabatabai is the Middle East fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and an adjunct senior research fellow at Columbia University. She’s the author of the forthcoming No Conquest, No Defeat: Iran’s National Security Strategy.