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Iran sanctions: U.S. demands 'snapback' of measures at U.N. Security Council

None of the other co-signatories of the deal believe the U.S. has the power to reimpose Iran sanctions because it withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018.
Image: A missile unveiled by Iran is launched in an unknown location
A missile unveiled by Iran is launched in an unknown location Thursday.WANA / Reuters

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally demanded on Thursday that crippling international sanctions be reinstated against Iran.

"The process to re-impose sanctions on Iran begins," he said in a tweet. "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."

Members of the E3 — France, Germany and the United Kingdom — rejected the attempt to initiate what's known as a "snapback," a mechanism built into the Iran nuclear deal signed under President Barack Obama in 2015. The countries noted that the United States ceased to be a participant in the 2018 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA.

"We cannot therefore support this action which is incompatible with our current efforts to support the JCPOA," the E3 said in a statement.

President Donald Trump had directed Pompeo to travel to the United Nations Security Council in New York to enforce the so-called snapback.

This would reinstate all United Nations sanctions on Iran that were lifted in exchange for curbs on the country's nuclear program. The problem for Trump is that none of the other co-signatories — China, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany and France — believe the president has the power to do this because he withdrew from the deal in 2018.

"The United States intends to restore virtually all of the previously suspended United Nations sanctions on Iran," President Donald Trump said Wednesday. "It's a snapback."

The move comes after the Security Council roundly rejected a U.S. resolution to extend an arms embargo on Tehran on Friday. The only country out of 15 to support Washington was the Dominican Republic.

A State Department statement Wednesday said: "Secretary Pompeo’s notification to the [U.N. Security] Council follows its inexcusable failure last week to extend the arms embargo on the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism and anti-Semitism."

Image: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
Pompeo has called on other Security Council members not to block the snapback.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP - Getty Images

The move to reimpose U.N. sanctions has drawn criticism from China, Russia and across Europe, and even opposition from John Bolton, the former national security adviser and renowned Iran hawk.

Supporters of the nuclear deal maintain it's the best way to delay any attempt by Iran to build nuclear weapons, avoiding a more immediate crisis.

Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal in May 2018, calling it "the worst deal ever negotiated" for allowing Iran a possible path to nuclear weapons in the future.

On Thursday, Iran continued to ignore U.S. calls to halt its ballistic missile program, displaying a new cruise missile and surface-to-surface ballistic missiles that its defense minister said had a range of 870 miles. The surface-to-air missile is named after Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the powerful Iranian military leader killed in a U.S. airstrike in January.

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Pictures of the weapons were shown on state TV, billing one of the models as "the newest Iranian cruise missile that will further strengthen Iran's deterrence power."

The nuclear deal is now on the brink of collapse, after Trump's withdrawal and Iran's subsequent breach of limits on its uranium stockpile and concentration.

Pompeo's trip to the United Nations could also further alienate Washington from the other world powers and undermine the legitimacy of the U.N. Security Council itself.

Under the snapback mechanism, any participant to the deal can raise a complaint to the Security Council if they believe another country is guilty of "significant non-performance of commitments."

The process can only be stopped by a Security Council vote — and the U.S. has a veto. After 30 days, all of the U.N. sanctions previously placed on Iran would "snap back" into place.

Image: A new cruise missile unveiled by Iran and called martyr Abu Mahdi at an unknown location
Iran's new cruise missile was unveiled at an unknown location in the country Thursday.WANA / Reuters

This is where things get very murky. China, Russia and signatories in Europe have already said they don't believe the U.S. has the power to do this, because it left the deal in 2018.

Bolton, a former Iran hawk in Trump's administration, has called the U.S. position "too cute by half," arguing that it lost its snapback privileges when it withdrew from the deal. Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif highlighted the former national security adviser's comments.

"At least he is consistent—a trait notably absent in this US administration," Zarif tweeted, adding that the U.S. has "no leg to stand on."

Some analysts have suggested that the other countries may just ignore the U.S. demands, perhaps waiting it out until November in the hope that until then the American sanctions enforcement mechanisms won't be able to cope with the widespread noncompliance.

Iran’s reaction would also be crucial. It too could wait it out until November or pull out of the deal altogether, the latter infinitely complicating matters even if Biden were to become president.

Pompeo told Fox News on Wednesday that the U.S. has "held every nation accountable" for sanctions violations so far, and "we'll do the same thing with respect to the broader U.N. Security Council sanctions as well.

"They just are wedded to this crazy nuclear deal, they're trying to hang on to it," Pompeo said of the European members of the council who abstained.

Reuters contributed to this report.