The United States is pushing ahead with a scheme to extend a United Nations arms embargo on Iran that is due to be lifted in October as part of the nuclear deal that Washington abandoned two years ago.
To force the extension, Washington will attempt to lobby the Security Council to continue the arms embargo, which bars weapons sales to or from Iran.
But it also is making what legal experts and diplomats describe as a convoluted argument that it is still part of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action it left, and hence able to use one of its provisions to “snapback” the embargo.
The administration’s plan is to claim it is still part of the Security Council resolution that enshrined the nuclear deal in international law even though Mr Trump trashed the agreement, meant to curtail Tehran’s atomic technology programme, as the “worst deal” in history.
The plan was first reported by The New York Times earlier this week.
“We are one of the participants, and the participants have the right to invoke snapback in a way that will prevent this expiration of the arms sales,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News on Thursday.
Many diplomats worry about the ultimate goal of the push. Iran already sells and buys weapons through intermediaries and on the black market. Europeans will never sell it weapons, for fear of invoking other US sanctions, and both China and Russia have rarely sold Iran any advanced weaponry.
But diplomats and scholars fear that the Trump administration’s latest gambit is a move by hardline Washington fixtures aimed at both permanently damaging any prospects for a future deal with Iran, as well as part and parcel of far-right efforts to damage international multilateral institutions.
“The administration is trying to force everyone’s hand by creating yet another crisis that they hope this time would bring down the JCPOA for good,” said Ali Vaez, of the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution advocacy organisation.
Iran, which has severely downgraded its adherence to provisions of the nuclear deal in response to crippling US sanctions, has vowed that any reimposition of international sanctions would prompt it to leave the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and potentially open the door for it to pursue nuclear weapons.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been warning for months about the October removal of the arms embargo. The administration's plan to attempt to bend the Security Council over Iran was only formally rolled out this week, announced in a series of interviews and briefings Thursday night it has been in the works for as many nine months, say diplomats.
The push coincides with US-friendly Estonia taking the helm of the Security Council for a month, giving Washington the ability to squeeze a weak, militarily dependent NATO ally into introducing any measures it likes.
China and Russia have already vowed to use any means to block the US plan. France’s Emmannuel Macron has been working behind the scenes to sabotage the Trump scheme because of what it sees as an attempt by the White House to destroy international legal norms, said a well-placed European diplomat.
Senior European diplomats have scoffed at the US gambit. “The US has not participated in any meetings of activities within the framework of this agreement since then,” EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borell told Radio Free Europe on Thursday. “So it's quite clear for us that the US is no longer a participating member in this agreement.”
Complicating matters for the administration, not only has it renounced the 2015 deal, but it’s own point person on Iran policy has repeatedly said it was up to European signatories to the nuclear deal with Tehran to “snapback” any of its provisions.
“We’re no longer in the deal and so the parties that are still in the deal will have to make their decisions with respect to using or not using the dispute resolution mechanism,” Brian Hook told reporters last year.
The anti-Iran hawk reiterated in January that the “snapback” of United Nations sanctions on Iran removed as part of the 2015 nuclear deal was a decision to be made by the UK, France, and Germany.
“What makes their legal argument much more difficult is that you have had officials coming out on the record saying we have no rights or obligations under the JCPOA including the UN snapback is no longer in their remit,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “They’re doing a complete U-turn.”
Diplomats and specialists say it illustrates the disarray and incompetence of the Trump team, who have been egged by a clique of hawkish Washington insiders seemingly determined to exert maximum pressure on Iran as a way to settle scores with Tehran as well as rival foreign policy architects in the Democratic Party’s camp.
Had Mr Trump remained in the deal and agitated against Iran from within it, Washington might have been in a stronger position to pursue its hawkish aims, many have argued.
“The international prohibition on weapons going to/from Iran ends in October,” US Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote on Twitter. “To extend this arms embargo, the Trump administration is suddenly arguing that the US is a party to the same Iran Deal it abandoned. That makes no sense. Make up your mind.”
Mr Pompeo responded by accusing Ms Warren of favouring the sale of Chinese tanks to Iran.
Despite scoffing at the administration’s scheme, some diplomats and scholars suggested the move could push the Security Council into uncharted terrain, and that Trump’s team could exert pressure and threats on enough Security Council members to push for an extension of the arms embargo, although the current composition of the body has only four or five surefire pro-Washington votes.
“At the end of the day it’s not a legal issue; it’s a political issue,” said Mr Vaez, “The odds of being able to snap back sanctions are higher than its failure.”
Still, the EU members on the Security Council, which include permanent members UK and France, as well as Germany and Belgium, will do what they know best: absolutely nothing, and delay any consideration of the move in the hopes they can ride out the Trump administration if it loses office in November.
“The US won’t go into this blind. They’ll use pressure and threats,” said the well-placed EU official. “I wouldn’t understand why any country would seriously engage with the US before November. I would want to wait and see the outcome of the elections.”