US President Donald Trump removed America from the Iranian Nuclear Deal in May of 2018, but that might not stop his administration from arguing it is still a member of the accord. In an unusual tactic, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is preparing to justify America’s continued participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in an attempt to force the UN to renew an arms embargo on Tehran, as the New York Times reported.

Flip-Flopping

Nearly a month ago, Pompeo indicated the Trump administration would consider easing some sanctions on Iran to help it fight COVID-19. Now, Pompeo is back to waging President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, however. Since the Middle Eastern state has been sanctioned nearly every way possible from Washington, Pompeo has turned to the expiring UN arms embargo on Iran.

The embargo, established at the same time as the JCPOA, is set to expire in stages — restrictions on small arms will be lifted in October with missiles embargoed for an additional three years. An updated copy of the resolution reads: 

“Iran shall not supply, sell or transfer, directly or indirectly, from its territory, by its nationals or using its flag vessels or aircraft, any arms or related matériel, and that all member states shall prohibit the procurement of such items from Iran by their nationals, or using their flagged vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in the territory of Iran.”

Pompeo wants the UN to extend the embargo, but in anticipation of Russia and China objecting, he is readying another option. If the US was still a member of the JCPOA, it could exercise a “snapback” provision in the deal. Doing so would essentially return all UN sanctions that existed before the agreement including sanctions on oil and banking.

“We cannot allow the Islamic Republic of Iran to purchase conventional weapons in six months. President Obama should never have agreed to end the U.N. arms embargo,” Pompeo told the New York Times. “We are prepared to exercise all of our diplomatic options to ensure the arms embargo stays in place at the U.N. Security Council.”

Expecting Resistance

According to the New York Times, Moscow has already signaled interest in selling arms to Tehran once again. Both Russia and China are permanent members of the UN Security Council alongside the US. If a single member disagrees with passing an embargo extension, the measure will fail.

Pompeo understands this and, more pertinently, he knows the proposed extension will come under heavy scrutiny when pitched to the UN. Both Russia and China have already called the Trump administration out for escalating tensions and argued the sanctions are unjust.

“I think [the Trump administration] will get tremendous pushback, because the Trump administration withdrew from the agreement,” said Wendy Sherman, the lead negotiator for the JCPOA and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard. 

On May 8, 2018, Trump said “I am announcing today that United States will withdraw from the nuclear deal.” He justified it by declaring “we have definitive proof” of Iran pursuing nuclear weapons and called the JCPOA  “one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made.” He also said it was “nuclear blackmail.” 

When a reporter asked how withdrawing from the JCPOA would make America safer, he only replied that it would, offering no details.

In tearing up the deal, Trump hoped to forge a new one bearing his name. In the same speech he announced the US withdrawal, he said Pompeo had been dispatched to North Korea to create a deal. No deal has been signed between the US and North Korea, other than a vague pledge to recommit to peace between the two states.

Pompeo’s mission to portray the US as still involved in the nuclear deal may seem impossible given Trump’s own statements on the issue. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif highlighted the perceived hypocrisy in his reaction. He said Pompeo and Trump were “dreaming that their ‘max pressure’ would bring Iran to its knees. Given that policy’s abject failure, he now wants to be JCPOA participant.”

Biding Time

If the other members of the UN Security Council refuse grant an extension for the arms embargo, it the ball would be back in Trump’s court. At that point, if Pompeo isn’t bluffing, he would try to force UN members to restore sanctions, effectively nullifying the agreement. Achieving that would be questionable, however, as some European states, notably France, have taken on more of a mediator role on the issue.

The UK, Germany, Russia, China, EU, and France are all still parties to the nuclear deal and have urged both sides to reconcile. Even as Tehran exceeded limits and became non-compliant, the signatories refused to rollback the agreement and restore sanctions. 

While Pompeo can threaten to undercut the deal, assuming the remaining signatories even entertain the idea of the US having not withdrawn, it would still be up to other states to enforce it. On paper, UN sanctions could be restored, but Washington might find itself pitted against the rest of the world in that case.

What could Trump do if other states refuse to honor sanctions Pompeo is arguing for? The global economy is already wrecked for the foreseeable future, so threatening trade wars would not be as effective. Furthermore, with an election in November, other states could simply refuse to comply and wait until the election plays out. By that point, they could conceivably only have two months left of Trump before a more reasonable successor takes office.

For Tehran, a lifting of the embargo in October would open up an economic avenue in a time when it has few options. It’s economy has plummeted to unimaginable depths and could certainly benefit greatly. However, continuing with an embargo extension would likely have little effect. There aren’t stockpiles of weapons and factories spun up in anticipation of a sudden boom in sales. Tehran isn’t as invested yet in the embargo being lifted.

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