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A US Decision To Force 'Snapback' Sanctions On Iran May Backfire

United Nations Security Council vote on a humanitarian draft resolution for Syria, which failed to gain the support of Russia and China, at U.N. headquarters in New York, September 19, 2019
Radio Farda is publishing a series of expert analysis and commentaries on the United States move to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran beyond October 2020.

Much of the discussion around the pending, likely U.S. decision to snapback UN Security Council sanctions on Iran has centered on questions of “could we? Should we?” This is understandable, as these questions address the threshold problems of U.S. legal standing and practical options in this unexpected scenario.

However, regardless of international opposition to this U.S. ploy, it seems likely that, before the October 2020 expiration of the UNSC arms embargo, the United States will make a fateful attempt at UNSC sanctions snapback. This decision will have three more distant but still serious effects on U.S. foreign policy beyond Iran and its likely negative reaction that merit attention.

First, it should go without saying that the United States will find it difficult, if not impossible, to secure a similar UNSC snapback arrangement in the future. The United States sought a unilateral ability to trigger reimposition of sanctions on Iran to avoid future UNSC gridlock. Beyond the strategic imperative, there was a domestic political necessity and I believe the snapback arrangement’s ultimate inclusion on the JCPOA process was an essential part of the agreement being permitted by the U.S. Congress to enter into force in 2016.

As a former U.S. negotiator for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), I can say unequivocally that the snapback provisions of the JCPOA were very contentious because it overrides to some extent the prerogatives over UNSC action that are accorded to its veto-holding permanent members. The capricious use of the snapback provision in this instance will confirm to those other UNSC members that they were right in their opposition. We will probably find it difficult, if not impossible, to secure a similar arrangement in future negotiations with any number of U.S. adversaries, whether under Donald Trump or his successor.

Second, it is unclear what will happen in the UNSC if we prompt snapback but the Russians, Chinese and perhaps even U.S. allies in Europe argue that we lack standing to do so. Without an international arbiter, we could face a scenario in which one member – the United States – asserts the UNSC has acted and the original sanctions are back in place and other members disagree. What then? Unlike in national law, the UN process works by member states being informed of obligations – voting on them in some cases – and then undertaking them domestically. In a split, confused UNSC process, whose lead will they follow and what rules will they set at home, especially if Russia and China respond by selling arms to Iran and behaving as if the pre-snapback world pertains?

Third and related, the United States will find its future ability to negotiate at the UNSC severely compromised, especially when it relates to coercive measures. Though some may argue UNSC sanctions are passé in a world of U.S. unilateral pressure, they are mistaken. U.S. sanctions authorities can have some effects absent international support, but even the “America First” Trump Administration clearly recognizes that international legal backstopping for its position is crucial; otherwise, why would they be doing this? Such support affects the domestic law of over 190 member states and countless international organizations and bodies. It grants U.S. diplomatic, military, intelligence, and law enforcement personnel additional credibility when they seek to interdict arms shipments, prevent financial transfers, and block the travel of our adversaries. UNSC sanctions are not perfect and international adherence is often lacking, but the international stamp of approval that they convey is crucial to such missions and thereby advantageous to U.S. national security.

We play games with such valuable tools at our peril.

The opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily the views of Radio Farda
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    Richard Nephew

    Former US negotiator with Iran as Principal Deputy Coordinator for Sanctions Policy at the Department of State, Senior Research Scholar in the Faculty of International and Public Affairs at Columbia university. His book is called “The art of sanctions”.