U.S. Isolated at U.N. as Push to Ramp Up Pressure on Iran Fails

“We don’t need a cheering section,” said Trump’s U.N ambassador. But Washington does need international compliance to make snapback sanctions work.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference to announce the Trump administration's restoration of sanctions on Iran, on September 21, 2020, at the US State Department in Washington, DC.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference to announce the Trump administration's restoration of sanctions on Iran at the State Department in Washington on Sept. 21. Patrick Semansky / Pool / AFP via Getty Images

The Trump administration celebrated the 75th birthday of the United Nations by ramping up its campaign to kill off one of the most significant multilateral agreements of the century: the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. 

But the unilateral U.S. effort to reimpose U.N. sanctions on Iran appeared to be in tatters, as key U.N. powers redoubled their support for the pact, and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres rebuffed an appeal from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to reimpose multilateral sanctions.

Most of the Trump administration’s top officials—including Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien—in a press conference urged other countries to adhere to its announcement Monday that it had “snapped back” U.N. sanctions on Iran that were in place prior to the 2015 deal negotiated during the Obama administration. The United States also announced further unilateral sanctions on Iranian officials and entities involved in weapons production. 

Almost no one followed Washington’s lead, highlighting the latest failure in the Trump administration’s effort to rally the world behind its maximum pressure campaign against Iran. None of the other signatories of the 2015 pact—including Britain, France, Germany, the European Union, China, and Russia—took heed of the U.S. plea, though the United States did secure expressions of support from Israel and the bloc representing Persian Gulf states for a renewed arms embargo.

Trump’s ambassador to the U.N., Kelly Craft, brushed off the historic rebuff.

“We don’t need a cheering section to validate our moral compass. We do not find comfort based solely on numbers, particularly when the majority has found themselves in an uncomfortable position of underwriting terrorism, chaos, and conflict,” Craft said. “We refuse to be members of that club.”

“The country that’s isolated today is not the United States but rather Iran,” Pompeo added. “By these actions, we have made it very clear that every member state in the United Nations has a responsibility to enforce these sanctions. That certainly includes the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. We will have every expectation that those nations enforce these sanctions.” European officials have said they have no plans to honor a snapback. 

The Trump administration insists that it has the authority to trigger the snapback of sanctions because it was an original party to the 2015 deal, before pulling out in 2018. The foreign ministers of the United Kingdom, Germany, and France issued a statement saying the U.S. proclamation is “incapable of having legal effect” because only current parties to the deal could trigger such a move. 

The standoff gives rise to a new maze of unanswered legal and political questions about how Washington could unilaterally enforce multilateral sanctions without the cooperation of other U.N. powers. It also underscores how some of the United States’ closest allies are fed up with the Trump administration’s unilateralism.

“Frankly, there’s a degree of exhaustion with this administration in the Security Council,” said Richard Gowan, the U.N. director at the International Crisis Group. “On top of three and a half years of Trump unraveling multilateral arrangements, there’s just very little good will left for the U.S. right now.”

But even if the U.S. isn’t able to convince European states to support snapback sanctions, some experts believe that the Trump administration can still deter would-be investors from placing bets on Iran. Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said the United States doesn’t need multilateral support to make a sanctions snapback work, given the global dominance of the U.S. dollar and power of the United States in international financial markets. U.S. secondary sanctions help enforce U.N. sanctions—indeed it’s the only thing that ever has, said Dubowitz. It’s the same line that we heard in 2015 that U.S. sanctions wouldn’t work without multilateral support. Well it was wrong then and it’s wrong now. Sanctions efficacy is about markets not politics, CEOs not diplomats.

The standoff with European powers has only deepened as the United States has sought to prevent the expiration of the existing U.N. arms embargo against Iran; one of the conditions of the 2015 nuclear deal was that Iran would see arms sanctions relief this year. On Aug. 20, Pompeo tried to trigger the snapback of sanctions in a letter to then-U.N. Security Council president, Dian Triansyah Djani of Indonesia, arguing that Tehran was in “significant non-performance” of the accord. But Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia—all Security Council members—countered that the United States cannot legally trigger the snapback of sanctions in a deal to which it is no longer a party.

Over the weekend, Guterres informed Pompeo that his office would not be able to support efforts to reimpose sanctions unless the divided council reached agreement on the matter. It didn’t: The Trump administration’s U.N. resolution to reimpose the embargo failed in August by a wide margin, with all of Washington’s closest European allies abstaining from the vote and only one country—the Dominican Republic—supporting it.

The Trump administration warns that without reimposing the sanctions, Iran could strengthen its military and nuclear program. The country remains under strict sanctions regimes from the United States and European Union. The Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s in-house intelligence arm, said in a report last year that Iran’s air force is likely to buy fourth-generation fighter jets from Russia when the U.N. arms embargo expires in October. 

Some former officials see the Trump administration’s efforts to trigger snapback sanctions as a way to deal a final death blow to the nuclear deal, which could force a future Joe Biden administration to renegotiate the 2015 deal from scratch.

“When the Trump administration started going down this road, it was very clear what they wanted to do,” said Jarrett Blanc, the former State Department coordinator for Iran nuclear implementation during the Obama administration and now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They wanted to smash the remnants of the [Iran nuclear deal]. They saw snapback as a vehicle for doing that.”

The administration’s legal wrangling to trigger snapback sanctions has even drawn criticism from some Iran hawks. 

The “Trump Administration’s failed ‘snapback sanctions’ effort will ironically—and unfortunately—undercut U.S. efforts to eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” former White House National Security Advisor John Bolton tweeted Monday. Bolton—a stalwart Iran hawk and sharp critic of the nuclear deal—has expressed concern that Biden, should he win in November, could use the Trump administration’s insistence that the United States remains a party to the deal to more easily reenter the agreement. 

The former U.S. vice president reiterated last week that he would return to the deal in exchange for Iranian compliance on the limits of its nuclear program. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking at an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations on Monday, said Tehran had enough low-enriched uranium “for three bombs” and refused to commit to fresh talks if Biden is elected president. 

Still, the Trump administration is leaving the door open. “If Iran is willing to forswear regional terrorism and proxy wars and is willing to end its pursuit of a nuclear bomb, Iran could be a tremendously prosperous state,” O’Brien said during Monday’s press briefing. “Unfortunately, the regime hasn’t chosen that route. We’re hoping that with these renewed sanctions that will be some inducement for Iran to change its behavior.”

Zarif said Monday that Iran had “never been hesitant to negotiate” but would not renegotiate anything new beyond the 2015 deal.

Update, Sept. 22, 2020: This article was updated to include comments from additional experts. 

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

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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