The U.S. Has the Legal Tools to Maintain the Arms Embargo on Iran—if It’s Willing to Use Them

July 1, 2020 | Benny Avni
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At a virtual meeting of the UN Security Council yesterday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the council’s members to extend a conventional-arms embargo on the Islamic Republic, set to expire this fall. His words were met with threats to veto any attempt to do so—not just from Russia and China, but from the United Kingdom as well. But what Pompeo failed to do, writes Benny Avni, is to threaten to use the “snapback” clause in the 2015 nuclear agreement, which any party can invoke unilaterally:

Legal eagles at the State Department contend America can trigger [the snapback] mechanism, included in Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed [the] nuclear deal. In background briefings, administration officials say America would unilaterally invoke that mechanism, reverting to the international sanctions that existed prior to the 2015 resolution, unless the council acts on the arms embargo before October.

Resolution 2231 removed several prior sanctions painstakingly built up for decades as Tehran continued to acquire nuclear capabilities and act aggressively in the region. Resolution 2231 also contained a series of sunset provisions that gradually ease restrictions further. The first of those, the removal of an arms embargo, is due to expire weeks before our presidential election.

[I]n selling the Iran deal to the American people, officials in President Obama’s administration promised that America could unilaterally reimpose all sanctions at any time it detected Iranian non-compliance. As the UN top political official, Rosemary DiCarlo, told the council Tuesday, Iran violated the arms embargo by smuggling missiles in the region.

Secretary Pompeo urged the Security Council to act without spelling out America’s next step if it doesn’t. At the same time, council members warned America not to do that which Pompeo failed to threaten. . . . Pompeo will be better off making clear that [the White House] has enough muscle left to fend off a dangerous regime.

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