The Coming Security Council Showdown

Snapback Sanctions are Coming — and, With Them, the Untimely Demise of the JCPOA

On August 14, the UN Security Council rejected a resolution that would have prolonged the UN arms embargo on Iran for the foreseeable future, amid reservations from Washington’s European partners that an indefinite extension would incur vetoes from Russia and China. This seems likely to force Washington’s hand to trigger the snapback sanctions that may prove to be the ultimate undoing of the JCPOA. 


Secretary Pompeo issued a stinging rebuke of the Security Council for its ”failure to act decisively in defense of international peace and security,” labelling it “inexcusable.” Pompeo also noted the Arab-Israeli diplomatic convergence on the matter: “Arab nations and Israel strongly supported extending the embargo. Last weekend, the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council came together to ask the Security Council to extend the embargo. Israel also asked the Council to do the same to prevent Iran from expanding and modernizing its arsenal. These countries know Iran will spread even greater chaos and destruction if the embargo expires, but the Security Council chose to ignore them.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin swiftly moved to re-assert Moscow’s preferences and forestall the potentially imminent American move to triggering the snapback sanctions. On August 14, he called for a video summit of world leaders, consisting of Security Council member states in addition to the leaders of Germany and Iran, aimed at preventing “confrontation and escalation of the situation in the Security Council,” and asserting that “no one should resort to blackmail or dictate in this region.”

Such moves are unlikely to sway Washington, however. As a result of the Council’s inability to extend the arms embargo, Washington is now preparing to trigger snapback sanctions. Secretary Pompeo has said for months that, while Washington would prefer consensus, “in the event it doesn’t happen, we remind the world that the Obama administration’s officials said very clearly that the United States has the unilateral ability to snap back sanctions into place.” This now appears to be a virtual certainty. 


The process of triggering snapback sanctions is unusually circuitous. The UNSCR 2231, which serves as the UN’s de facto seal of approval of the JCPOA, defines several countries, including the United States, as “JCPOA participants” and accords them the right to initiate the beginning of the snapback process should Iran enter into material breach of its nuclear commitments. A complex series of counter-resolutions and votes would then ensue, after which any veto-wielding member of the Security Council could, in effect, trigger the snapback process. 

Supporters of the JCPOA have mounted a last-ditch defense of the agreement, arguing that the U.S. no longer qualifies as a “participant state” given the Trump administration’s decision in May 2018 to withdraw from the agreement. Russian ambassador Sergey Lavrov labeled the American move “ridiculous and irresponsible.” Alas, for Lavrov, the text of UNSCR 2231 leaves little room for maneuver, unambiguously identifying the U.S. as a “participant state” regardless of the duration of that participation.

Once the procedural issues are dealt with, all that snapback requires is proof that Iran is in breach of its nuclear commitments. Tehran has done its part in this regard. The International Atomic Energy Agency has reported that Iran has enriched uranium to a purity greater than 3.67 percent, increased its low-enriched uranium stockpile beyond the JCPOA-mandated limit of 300 kilogram, stored excess amounts of heavy water, tested advanced centrifuges, and restarted enrichment at the Fordow enrichment plant. All of these actions contravene specific commitments located within the JCPOA. In addition, the IAEA has publicized that Iran is refusing to allow international inspectors access to suspected nuclear sites and may well be concealing undeclared nuclear materials and activities.

With this in hand, the outcome seems assured. Whether it takes weeks or months, snapback sanctions are coming — and, with them, the untimely demise of the JCPOA.