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Why Europe Fears Snapback Sanctions for Iran

Washinton seeks to reimpose sanctions against Iran at all costs. America’s weapon of choice, the snapback option, is opposed by the Europeans. Nevertheless, the White House could have more leverage when it comes down to resolving the matter.

Washington’s Plan

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo followed up on his announcement and recently submitted a complaint to the UN Security Council arguing that Iran failed to meet its obligations under the nuclear deal. Pompeo attempted to trigger the snapback, with which all sanctions against Iran suspended in 2015 would come into force again.

Washington believes that no other nation can stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The American government differentiates between the regulations in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the Iran nuclear deal and those in UN Resolution 2231, with which the agreement became part of international law.

The JCPOA’s dispute settlement mechanism calls for phases of dialogue before the UN Security Council gets involved. On the other hand, Resolution 2231 provides every “participant” to the agreement to reinstate the sanctions unilaterally.

Can the US Still Trigger the Snapback Option?

The snapback mechanism sets a legal precedent as it removes a state’s right to veto the Security Council. If a “participant” claims the right to trigger a snapback, only a new Security Council resolution can ensure that the sanctions remain suspended. However, Washington would veto such a resolution.

After the United States existed the deal in 2018 and reinstated its sanctions against Iran, opinions differ as to whether Washington remains a “participant” and can trigger a snapback. Paragraph 10 of Resolution 2231 names the signatories to the 2015 agreement as “participants.” The United States sees itself as such, even after its withdrawal.

Most importantly, paragraph 10 does not contain any provision that this status can change due to future behavior. Thus, it is more probable than not that the United States continues to be a “participant” from a legal point of view. Meanwhile, the Europeans continue to claim that no legal basis for the snackback exists, as, in the eyes of London, Paris, and Berlin, Washington is no longer a “participant.”

Washington also argues that even after withdrawing from the nuclear agreement, they insisted on unreserved compliance with Resolution 2231, which — in contrast to the agreement as a political agreement — is binding under international law. This also applies to the question of how to proceed if Iran fails to meet its obligations. Washington rules out that procedural maneuvers in the Security Council could block the snapback initiation and that the countdown of 30 days could be stopped.

However, the USA failed on Tuesday with its application to resume sanctions via the snapback. With the law arguably being on the US’s side, however, it seems inconceivable that Pompeo will concede to the defeat. The US could now draft its own resolution, which could create even more confusion.

Europe’s Perspective

In Berlin, the actions of the Trump administration continue to be viewed with great concern. During the entire dispute over the nuclear agreement, the Federal Foreign Office has always attached great importance to the fact that the three European participants in Germany, France, and Great Britain, should appear in a coordinated and uniform manner. They are cognizant of the issues the American position, as well as China’s and Russia’s position regarding Iran and understand the challenge this poses.

Therefore, the three Europeans wanted to develop a “smart alternative” and want to put particularly offensive types of weapons under an extended embargo period. Considering Washington has made now made sanctions its sine qua non, the European leaders are convinced that Trump’s administration’s ultimate goal is to bring the nuclear deal to a standstill before the election in America. One can almost be certain that secretly one hopes for an occupancy change at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Europeans want a new President in office for good reason.

In the worst case, the ongoing diplomatic dispute could lead to a split in the Security Council over the question of whether the old sanctions against Iran will apply again or not. Most countries could essentially ignore a snapback triggered by a unilateral US approach, which would lead to drastic distortions between Europe and the USA and, most importantly, could establish a precedent with severe consequences for the UN, its members, and international law itself.