Washington Advances Toward “Snapback Sanctions” on Iran

Tehran May Fight the Measure Tooth and Nail, but the Outcome is Assured: An End to the JCPOA

On Thursday, Secretary Pompeo formally initiated the mechanism known as “snapback sanctions,” a feature of the 2015 JCPOA and its sister UN resolution, UNSCR 2231, in a bid to reimpose UN sanctions on Iran. Tehran and its allies may be expected to fight the measure tooth and nail, but the outcome seems virtually assured: an end to the JCPOA.
On August 20, Pompeo announced that “the process to re-impose sanctions on Iran begins. “Today I hand-delivered a letter to UN Security Council President Dian Triansyah Djani to formally notify the Council of something we all know too well—Iran's failure to meet its commitments under the terrible nuclear deal.” This comes off the heels of the Security Council’s failure to extend an arms embargo on Iran, a proposal led by Washington and supported by few of the Council’s other members. In articulating the U.S.’s rationale for moving down the path of snapback sanctions, Pompeo added, "Our message is very, very simple: The United States will never allow the world's largest state sponsor of terrorism to freely buy and sell planes, tanks, missiles and other kinds of conventional weapons." In the Secretary’s estimation, "this process will lead to those sanctions coming back into effect 30 days from today.”
Not all of Washington’s allies have been in lockstep, however. London, Paris, and Berlin in particular remain wedded to the JCPOA, and fear that snapback sanctions will shatter the accord permanently. In an August 20th statement, the E-3 declared they could not support snapback “which is incompatible with our current efforts to support the JCPoA.” The statement echoes earlier, legally tenuous claims that the U.S. lacks the standing to initiate snapback due to Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, noting that “that the US ceased to be a participant to the JCPoA following their withdrawal from the deal on 8 May, 2018” and that “the issue of systematic Iranian non- compliance with its JCPoA obligations” should be resolved through “dialogue between JCPoA participants,” as well as urging Iran “to reverse all measures inconsistent with its nuclear commitments and return to full compliance without delay.”
Moscow, for its part, has seconded the E-3, albeit in less diplomatic tones, and resting its case entirely on the proposition that Washington lacks the legal standing to initiate the snapback process. Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, dismissed the U.S. move as “nonexistent,” arguing that only current members of the JCPOA can legitimately trigger a snapback. Speaking of Secretary Pompeo, before he even arrived in New York for the Security Council deliberation, Nebenzia said, “He’s not triggering a snapback… Snapback can be triggered by a country that is a participant of the JCPOA, which the U.S. is not.”
Omri Ceren, a foreign policy adviser to Senator Ted Cruz and a close analyst of the JCPOA, notes, however, that the relevant legal text, UNSCR 2231, “was written so any of the original JCPOA participants could shred the deal. That was an early guarantee Obama officials gave Congress and a key selling point.” For his part, President Trump simply said on Wednesday, "It's a snapback. Not uncommon.”
Iranian officialdom is putting up a brave face, despite the procedural deck being stacked against it. The chief of staff for the Iranian presidential office, Mahmoud Vaezi, predicted the U.S. effort would fail, tweeting that "The United States continues to make mistakes. They will fail again with the same process as the recent resolution, but with strong political and legal reasoning."