While there is hope by Trump administration supporters that the US decision to move forward on snapback will work, the consensus appears to be in Europe, Russia, Iran and elsewhere, that it will not.
Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei and Donald Trump
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO,REUTERS)
The Trump administration has sought to re-impose snapback sanctions on Iran under UN Security Council resolution 2231. The decision was announced by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the first hours of September 20. It marks a month since the US informed the UN Security Council of Iran’s non-performance with provisions of the 2015 Iran Deal. However most countries appear to oppose the US “snapback” and Iran is already maneuvering to exploit this to undermine the US role in the Middle East. Russia, Turkey, China and others will also seek to use this to their benefit as they also want to reduce the US role in the region and globally. This is a unique moment in world history and Iran believes it will be a symbolic end to US hegemony, marking an end of thirty years of US role that began with the Gulf conflict of 1990.
Pompeo says that soon the US will announce a range of additional measures to strengthen the enforcement of UN sanctions on Iran. This is part of the multi-year maximum pressure campaign the US began in 2018. The US sought to reduce Iran oil exports to almost zero. Iran has shipped gasoline to Venezuela and Syria nonetheless. The US also sought to keep an arms embargo on Iran. That embargo also appears likely to expire.
While there is hope by Trump administration supporters that the US decision to move forward on snapback will work, the consensus appears to be in Europe, Russia, Iran and elsewhere, that it will not. Iran’s media has been quick to seize on reports of European disagreement with the US to showcase that it will defeat the US on the issue of sanctions. Iran’s Press TV says that Josep Borrell, the top EU foreign policy bureaucrat, disagrees with the US. France, Germany and the UK appear to disagree with the US also. Iran’s UN mission has sent a letter slamming the US decision as well. Iran argues that the UN Security Council does not agree with the US position and that the US has not been a party to the Iran Deal since 2018 because the US walked away from the JCPOA that May. Iran says the US view is “null and void” and the US has no legal standing to enforce snapback.
This all sets up a complex battle not only between the US and Iran but also between the US and Russia and China and between the US and Europe. Washington appears prepared to use secondary sanctions against countries that violate its understanding of snapback. It has made similar threats about those that violate the arms embargo that the US wanted imposed.
From Iran’s point of view, as well as Russia and China, the US has walked into a trap. They want to call its bluff on this and prove that they can do as they please despite US threats, setting up a crisis in which the US will lose because the US will be shown not to have the international diplomatic or economic clout it once had. In a sense they want to push this issue, waving a red flag in front of the Trump administration, and hope that it charges. They are gambling on the US stumbling as it tries to take on too many crisis at once. They also know the US has an election in a month and a half. The message from Moscow and other states has already become clear: The US era of global hegemony is over and the world is a multi-polar world now.
Pompeo has said the US will do what is necessary to enforce the arms embargo on Iran. The US wants UN member states to comply. This would also supposedly target Iranian enrichment of nuclear material, which has increased. Iran has already violated various promises on levels of enrichment and stockpiles. But the UN is reticent to do anything with the excuse that there is too much “uncertainty.” In reality the whole crisis has shown how weak the JCPOA was in the first place. It virtually guaranteed Iran an end to an arms embargo and sanctions relief and enabled it to eventually do whatever it wants. This is because most of the countries that wanted the deal wanted a legal way to let Iran do what it wanted and to create a complex structure such that it would be difficult to go back to sanctions. Iran has called that bluff as well by simply announcing it was breaking limits on enrichment, with no consequences. The deal in the end basically gave Iran a right to develop material to the point just before making a nuclear weapon even while ostensibly keeping it from doing so.
The US and Elliot Abrams, the US envoy, has indicated that the new US pressures will target enrichment, the development of new missiles and transfer of missile technology. However it’s unclear how the US will prevent this if it comes from Russia, or via Turkey and other states. Iran however is showing off its new enrichment and missile activity. It continues to announce new ranges and precision for drones and missiles. It sent a military satellite into orbit. It said on September 14 that it has 1,000 centrifuges at its Fordow facility doing enrichment. The only setback for Iran appears to be a July explosion at its Natanz facility, which it thinks was foreign sabotage.
Iran wants to test the US approach. The US says Iran is in breach of the deal. The US has also walked away from the deal. Iran is gambling that the UN will stand with Tehran and that in its dispute with Washington it will get Russia, China, Turkey, Europe and other states on its side, historically isolating the US. While Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has indicated Russia no longer will obey western international rules, Iran has boasted that the US is isolated. Iran wants to accelerate this isolation. China likely wants the same. China has been testing missiles and conducting more aggressive flights to challenge the US in the Pacific. Russia has also been challenging US B-52 and flights from Alaska to the Black Sea. Recently US F-22s intercepted Russian airplanes. Meanwhile Russian supersonic bombers broke a world record over the weekend, flying some 20,000 kilometers in 25 hours.
The message is clear. This isn’t just about the Iran deal or the snapback. This is about a re-ordering of the world. This change in the world order is meant to be symbolic of a process that has taken place over the last ten years. The symbol of the Iran crisis is that the US “new world order” put in place by the Gulf War thirty years ago and George H.W Bush is now eroded to the extent it may be over. Iran hopes that the US gamble on the snapback will be the final throw, the denouement that ends the US role in the Middle East. While this may be too optimistic from Tehran’s view, Iran thinks it has the US in a unique place historically, when almost no major countries agree with Washington’s view.