The Iran nuclear issue has moved to the center stage of international security after US President Donald Trump’s said on Saturday that Washington will push to “snapback” all pre-2015 United Nations sanctions against Tehran.
Trump added, “You will be watching it next week.”
Also, Trump apparently poured cold water on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposal on Friday for a video summit of veto-holding permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and Iran, the original signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), to discuss the Iran nuclear deal and Persian Gulf security issues.
Trump saw no urgency but hinted vaguely that he would revisit the subject “after November.” Clearly, the optics of the “snapback” sanctions are that Washington is hanging tough and the “maximum pressure” approach is further tightening.
But having said that, Trump ultimately considers himself to be the consummate deal maker – and is strategizing an approach of calibrated brinkmanship.
For a start, he hopes to extract out of Russia and China some sort of self-restraint that, at least until the US elections are over in November, they won’t provide Iran with military technology.
On the other hand, by sidestepping Putin’s proposal – which in effect resuscitates the dispute-resolution mechanism of the “6+1” format of the original signatories of the JCPOA – Trump avoids any controversies in US domestic politics in the run-up to the November election, where his “maximum pressure” approach embellishes his strongman image.
Of course, Moscow has a dubious history of heeding such US expectations in the past – when it delayed the delivery of S-300 missiles to Iran for several years because of US and Israeli pressure, forcing Tehran to sue Moscow for compensation. But circumstances have changed. US-Russia relations are tense, while Russia and Iran are partners in regional security.
Equally, Russia and China have worked in tandem on the diplomatic plane, and over the JCPOA, Beijing has adopted a line that rejects upfront the Trump administration’s legal standing to invoke snapback sanctions. Again, China-Iran relations have matured and the two countries are expected to conclude in a conceivable future a 25-year US$400 billion comprehensive strategic partnership agreement.
Significantly, Putin’s statement on Friday underscored Moscow’s convergence with Tehran and reiterated Moscow’s rejection of Washington’s “maximum pressure” approach against Iran. The following elements of Putin’s statement are to be noted:
- “Iran faces groundless accusations.”
- “Resolutions are being drafted [by Washington] with a view to dismantling decisions that had been unanimously adopted by the Security Council.”
- “Russia maintains its unwavering commitment to the JCPOA.”
- Russia’s Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf Region (which Iran welcomed and the US ignored) “outlines concrete and effective paths to unraveling the tangle of concerns” in Persian Gulf region.
- “There is no place for blackmail or dictate in this [Gulf] region, no matter the source. Unilateral approaches will not help bring about solutions.”
- There is imperative need to build an inclusive security architecture in the Persian Gulf region.
Indeed, Trump is playing his cards close to his chest.
The US move on “snapback” sanctions will come up for a decision before the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council, which will be called upon to take a view on the admissibility of the American contention that although Trump publicly repudiated the JCPOA, since it did not formally intimate the same to the UNSC, it still enjoys the prerogative to act under the Security Council’s Resolution 2231 that provides an international legal basis for the “snapback” clause.
Indonesia chairs the UNSC presidency through August, and Jakarta and Tehran enjoy friendly relations. The next in line for September is Niger, which may be susceptible to US pressure. By October, Russia’s turn comes to chair the presidency. How far Washington will push the envelope through the August-September period remains to be seen.
Without doubt, a UN sanctions snapback could have dire consequences for any form of trade with Iran, as it demands that member states exercise caution when transacting with Iranian financial institutions, and permits countries to inspect vessels or aircraft suspected of carrying cargo in violation of UN sanctions provisions on Iran in national or international waters.
Russia and China may decide to take advantage of the new Iranian market for their weapons exports. China’s stance has been exceptionally strong. Of course, all bets are off if Iran carries through its threats of a withdrawal from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in the case of reimposition of UN sanctions.
In sum, instead of focusing on sanctions snapback, the issue of critical importance in the coming weeks will be the ability of the E3 (France, the UK and Germany) – and potentially Russia and China – to take advantage of the time available to engage with the US on the sidelines.
The key to unlocking the current dispute lies largely in Washington, which is insisting on a resolution of the current impasse and on limiting Iranian nuclear activities. Washington in turn will have to offer some incentives to Iran. And those incentives need to be worked out through creative negotiation, as they devolve upon the existing unilateral US sanctions regime on Iran.
The good part is that none of the JCPOA protagonists stands to gain out of the snapback sanctions.
Arguably, Trump is applying “maximum pressure” on other JCPOA countries by threatening snapback sanctions, while keeping an open mind on Putin’s proposal to discuss all issues in a “6+1” format once the November election is out of the way. It is a fair assumption that Moscow anticipated Trump’s response on the above lines.
After all, Iran figured in the last phone conversation in late July between Trump and Putin and Putin’s latest proposal followed up that discussion. Iran was almost certainly kept in the loop, too.
Interestingly, after the visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Moscow in late July, the Tehran Times newspaper commented that “a possible revival of diplomatic initiatives between Iran and the US” under Putin’s mediation was to be expected.
Moscow is yet to react to Trump’s “Probably not” remark of Saturday apropos the Putin proposal. But a Tass report took note that “Washington will probably want to wait until presidential elections in the country end.” Beijing and Paris have so far voiced support for Putin’s proposal, while London and Berlin are watching from the sidelines.
As for Tehran, it is still savoring the sweet taste of the defeat of the US resolution at the UN Security Council on Friday to extend an arms embargo on Iran that is due to expire in October. In the final analysis, however, Tehran’s choice will be to negotiate directly with Washington.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.