A couple weeks ago, Jimmy Quinn wrote an excellent explainer on the U.S.’s attempt to extend the U.N. arms embargo on Iran. Since losing a Security Council vote to keep the embargo in place, Mike Pompeo and the State Department have changed tactics. Now, they are trying to initiate the snapback sanctions mechanism in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which, Quinn explains, “implements the Iran [nuclear] deal at the U.N. by lifting international sanctions previously put in place by the Security Council.”
The problem is that the U.S. left the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018, raising questions over its ability to enforce an agreement that it is no longer a part of. Notably, a year later, President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran would no longer abide by the terms of the JCPOA. He reiterated that intention this past January after the U.S. successfully eliminated Iranian terrorist and Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani in a targeted strike. Zachary Laub and Kali Robinson at the Council on Foreign Relations have noted that the Iranians have followed through on their promise by “exceed[ing] the agreed-upon limits to its stockpile of low-enriched uranium” and “starting to develop new centrifuges to speed up uranium enrichment.”
The legal argument over whether the U.S. should be able to enforce the terms of the JCPOA — interesting as it is — is ultimately a distraction, though. The important question is: Why it is that the U.S. is the only country determined to stop China and Russia from arming a dangerous, destabilizing force in the Middle East? Iran is in open defiance of the JCPOA. The snapback mechanism was specifically designed to punish them for such behavior. So even if the U.S. is not able to keep the embargo in place, shouldn’t France, Germany, and the United Kingdom be stepping up? Unfortunately, as Quinn laments in his piece, “the anti-snapback campaign amounts to little more than an attempt to relitigate the U.S. decision to withdraw in 2018” because “many of the deal’s proponents now see it as an end in itself.”
This was always a major flaw of the agreement. No signee save for the U.S. — if it happened to have a Republican president at the helm — was ever going to be willing to play hardball with the Iranians when they inevitably broke the terms of the agreement. And make no mistake, Iran was in contravention of the JCPOA even before the U.S. withdrew and Rouhani publicly announced his intention to do so. In 2017 for example, U.N. secretary-general António Guterres submitted a report to the Security Council indicating that Iran was violating Resolution 2231 by continuing its development of ballistic missiles and providing those missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen. Guterres expressed frustration with the Iranians. But he was, bafflingly, equally perturbed by the U.S.’s decision to formally recognize that Iran was not holding up its end of the bargain.
For years, the Europeans have known that Iran has been in violation of the JCPOA and done nothing. Iran has taken their inaction as permission to commit even more egregious infractions. Those who inexplicably wish to see the embargo expire in October are without exception — even more inexplicably — apologists for the JCPOA. They should be the most passionate advocates of extending the embargo for as long as Iran continues to flaunt its breaches of the agreement. Unfortunately, those who profess to believe in the deal are more invested in its continued existence than its enforcement.