The international community is pushing back against U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's Saturday night claim that United Nations sanctions on Iran have been restored—the administration's latest attempt to escalate tensions with the country—by noting that President Donald Trump ditched the related nuclear deal two years ago.
"Whether this is mere bluster or portends a potential October surprise remains to be seen but anyone opposed to more reckless wars should be on high alert."
—Jamal Abdi, NIAC
"With a track record of failure on Iran, the Trump administration's spin machine appears to be going into overdrive heading into November," Jamal Abdi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), declared in a statement Saturday. "Whether this is mere bluster or portends a potential October surprise remains to be seen but anyone opposed to more reckless wars should be on high alert."
"The administration's claims that it has successfully snapped back U.N. sanctions on Iran this evening are a farce that defy the international community and a basic comprehension of facts," he said. "Having been rejected repeatedly by our erstwhile negotiating partners at the U.N. Security Council, the Trump administration wants to pretend that U.N. sanctions are back in place. They seem to have deluded themselves, but the real world will remain unconvinced."
Putting Pompeo's stunt into the context of the administration's Iran policy, Abdi added that "ultimately, Trump's efforts to kill the deal by a thousand cuts have been defeated—for now—because he never had a realistic alternative and never listened to and entertained the views of close allies. The administration simply thinks diplomacy is accomplished through brute force, which has only secured their isolation on an issue the U.S. has historically had significant multilateral support."
This sums up Trump’s #Iran Policy, an embarrassing failure.
We’ve become so numb to the insanity of this admin that extraordinary headlines go unnoticed, but the world siding with Iran as the US creates an alternate reality is pretty striking. pic.twitter.com/n9BMkCYoKa
— Assal Rad (@AssalRad) September 20, 2020
In May 2018, Trump ignored warnings from anti-war advocates and foreign policy experts about the potential global consequences and announced that he was pulling the United States out of the Iran nuclear agreement. Since then, his administration has made several moves to ratchet up tensions between Washington and Tehran, from imposing more sanctions and harassing a civilian plane over Syrian airspace to assassinating Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani in January, which a top U.N. expert has determined was a violation of international law.
Officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal was negotiated under former President Barack Obama. Early voting has already started for the next U.S. general election, in which Trump faces Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, Obama's vice president, who has said he would return to the JCPOA.
Pompeo, in addition to playing a lead role in the Trump administration's "maximum pressure campaign" against Iran as the United States' top diplomat, made an unprecedented decision to attempt to aid in the president's reelection effort last month by delivering a speech to the Republican National Convention from a rooftop in Jerusalem while he was there on official government business.
The administration in August also made another move in its campaign against Iran: trying to trigger a sanctions "snapback" mechanism in U.N. Security Council resolution 2231—which enshrined the nuclear deal—by notifying the council about Iran's alleged "significant non-performance of its JCPOA commitments."
This notification, Pompeo claimed in a lengthy statement Saturday, started a 30-day process leading to the restoration of previously terminated U.N. sanctions that took effect at 8 pm ET Saturday. His claim, which other world leaders swiftly refuted, was paired with a threat that the U.S. will retaliate against countries that don't comply:
The United States expects all U.N. Member States to fully comply with their obligations to implement these measures. In addition to the arms embargo, this includes restrictions such as the ban on Iran engaging in enrichment and reprocessing-related activities, the prohibition on ballistic missile testing and development by Iran, and sanctions on the transfer of nuclear- and missile-related technologies to Iran, among others. If U.N. Member States fail to fulfill their obligations to implement these sanctions, the United States is prepared to use our domestic authorities to impose consequences for those failures and ensure that Iran does not reap the benefits of U.N.-prohibited activity.
The secretary also claimed the supposed snapback was "a step toward international peace and security," vowed the administration will soon announce "additional measures to strengthen implementation of U.N. sanctions and hold violators accountable," and reiterated his commitment to the maximum pressure campaign.
Hard to express how utterly absurd and embarrassing this is. UN sanctions haven’t returned, the UN rejected US efforts to reimpose them, so now the administration is just sanctioning other countries for not agreeing with us. Total rogue state behavior. https://t.co/b6IA8FTfcI
— Matt Duss (@mattduss) September 20, 2020
Josep Borrell, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, was among those who pushed back against Pompeo's announcement. Referencing his response to the administration's August notification, Borrell said "the U.S. unilaterally ceased participation in the JCPOA" in 2018 "and has subsequently not participated in any JCPOA-related activities. It cannot, therefore, be considered to be a JCPOA participant state and cannot initiate the process of reinstating U.N. sanctions under the U.N. Security Council resolution 2231. Consequently, sanctions lifting commitments under the JCPOA continue to apply."
"As coordinator of the JCPOA Joint Commission," he added, "I will continue to do everything possible to ensure the preservation and full implementation of the JCPOA by all. The JCPOA remains a key pillar of the global non-proliferation architecture, contributing to regional and global security as it addresses Iran's nuclear program in a comprehensive manner. I call on all to do their utmost to preserve the agreement and to refrain from any action that could be perceived as an escalation in the current situation."
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The governments of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom issued a similar joint statement Saturday, saying the Trump administration's notification—and thus, any related action or decision—is "incapable of having legal effect."
— Boris Ruge (@RugeBoris) September 20, 2020
Reuters reported that U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres told the Security Council he won't act on the U.S. claim because "there would appear to be uncertainty."
Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, suggested the Trump administration's announcement bolsters his observation earlier this week that "Pompeo seems to be preparing the ground for an October surprise—a confrontation with Iran that will be cast as both defensive and lawful." That sentiment was shared by others who read Parsi's recent piece:
Now that the US has declared snapback sanctions "in effect" despite no one else enforcing them, this @tparsi piece is relevant, speculating the US may now begin confiscating Iranian ships in international waters, even non-Iranian ships with Iranian goods.https://t.co/cRcz0g8DuE
— Séamus Malekafzali (@Seamus_Malek) September 20, 2020
This is what I warned about.
This is Step 1. DECLARING that the US will enforce sanctions that the UN denies exist.
Step 2 is to actually ENFORCE them by attacking Iranian ships. That's what will start the war.
Just 6 weeks before the elections...
— Trita Parsi (@tparsi) September 20, 2020
As Parsi noted, Politico reported on September 13 that in response to Soleimani's killing, "the Iranian government is weighing an assassination attempt against the American ambassador to South Africa, U.S. intelligence reports say, according to a U.S. government official familiar with the issue and another official who has seen the intelligence."
While that report "was met with significant skepticism, mainly because of the Trump administration's lack of credibility and the curious timing of the report," Parsi wrote that "perhaps most importantly, the Trump administration's own conduct raises the most serious red flags." He warned that "reliable or not, leaking the alleged plot does secure headlines of pending Iranian aggression against the United States. Which conditions the American public for the need to 'strike back'—and sets the stage for Pompeo's October surprise."
The Associated Press reported Saturday that the chief of Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Hossein Salami, dismissed claims that his country would target the U.S. ambassador but also said that "we will hit those who had direct and indirect roles" in Soleimani's assassination, adding that "everybody who had role in the event will be hit."
Although Iran's currency dropped after Pompeo's sanctions announcement, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh emphasized the global response, saying that "Tehran's message to Washington is clear: return to the international community, return to your commitments, and stop bullying so the international community will accept you."
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, addressing the developments in a televised speech, delivered a similar message. "America is approaching a certain defeat in its sanctions move... It faced defeat and negative response from the international community," he said. "We will never yield to U.S. pressure and Iran will give a crushing response to America's bullying."