U.S. Reimposes U.N. Sanctions on Iran Over Objections of World Powers

19 Sep 2020

U.S. Reimposes U.N. Sanctions on Iran Over Objections of World Powers

The full range of the sanctions were announced on Saturday evening in Washington, but it is unclear how effective they will be.

By Lara Jakes and David E. Sanger

September 19, 2020



WASHINGTON — Over the strenuous objections of its closest allies, the Trump administration reimposed United Nations sanctions against Iran on Saturday, though the weight of their repercussions is unclear without the cooperation of the world’s other major powers.

In an evening statement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the “return of virtually all previously terminated U.N. sanctions” and, in effect, declared a 2015 nuclear accord with Iran as no longer in force.

“The world will be safer as a result,” Mr. Pompeo said.

He also warned that the United States “is prepared to use our domestic authorities to impose consequences” for other countries that do not enforce the sanctions. He did not elaborate.

Minutes after Mr. Pompeo’s statement, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht Ravanchi, said the sanctions were “null and void.”

“US’ illegal & false ‘deadline’ has come and gone.” Mr. Ravanchi wrote on Twitter. He warned that the United States’ “swimming against int’l currents will only bring it more isolation.”

Just a day earlier, Britain, France and Germany said in a letter that the sanctions — which the United Nations had suspended after the signing of a 2015 nuclear accord — would have no legal effect.

To underscore their fundamental opposition, the letter said all three countries would work to preserve the 2015 agreement, which they jointly negotiated with the United States, China and Russia, even as Washington sought to destroy its last remnants. The Trump administration withdrew from the agreement more than two years ago.

“We have worked tirelessly to preserve the nuclear agreement and remain committed to do so,” said the letter, a copy of which was viewed by The New York Times.

For Mr. Trump, the penalties have both a political and international calculus. He ran in 2016 declaring that the Iran deal was a “terrible” giveaway to the country’s leadership, and Saturday’s move will enable him to enter the last stretch of the 2020 election declaring that he had destroyed it, and punished the Iranian economy by resuming sanctions that existed before the Obama administration negotiated the deal.

And should former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. win in November, the resumption of sanctions will make it more complicated to reassemble some version of the agreement. Mr. Biden would have to reverse the move, making it appear he had made a concession to Iran even as it has resumed work on its nuclear program in reaction to Mr. Trump’s decision to abandon the deal.

But for the president’s critics, the move underlines how his administration has splintered alliances and fractured understandings with the United States’ superpower adversaries, Russia and China. They had been unified in reaching the 2015 agreement. Now the United States has gone its own way, and Russia and China seem poised to resume conventional weapons sales to Iran next month when an arms embargo against Iran expires, over the objections of Washington.

“The irony I see here is that Trump is actually doing the U.N. and multilateralism a big favor, because by invoking the snapback, he is putting on display that the kind of clumsy unilateralism that he is known for doesn’t work,” said Ian Johnstone, a professor of international law at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

He predicted the sanctions would not be enforced by other countries and would be “met with a collective shrug.”

“The U.S. will insist that the sanctions are back on and most other countries will say, ‘No, they’re not,’” said Mr. Johnstone, who advised Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general.

In fact, the Trump administration’s insistence on reimposing the original United Nations sanctions, which had been formulated during the Bush and Obama administrations to force Tehran to the negotiating table, means that the United States alone will enforce them. That has raised doubts over whether the sanctions will bring much, if any, additional economic pain; one Security Council diplomat compared the American saber-rattling to pulling the trigger of an unloaded gun.

Administration officials disagree. In his statement on Saturday, Mr. Pompeo rapped the Security Council for refusing to extend a global arms embargo against Iran that is set to expire on Oct. 18. Only the Dominican Republic voted with the United States, and Mr. Pompeo made clear that the American demand to snap back the broader sanctions was in direct response to the arms embargo being allowed to expire, under the terms of the nuclear accord.

“Fortunately for the world, the United States took responsible action to stop this from happening,” Mr. Pompeo said.

In a visit to Washington on Wednesday, the British foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, gamely sought to play down the dispute in comments at the State Department.

“There may be shades of difference, but we always manage them as constructively as we have to this point,” said Mr. Raab, standing next to Mr. Pompeo.

In Iran, President Hassan Rouhani declared Saturday and Sunday to be “days of victory” in a thumb to what he described as the toothless American effort to punish his country.

“This is a historic victory for Iran,” he said this week, adding, “The U.S. is isolated and embarrassed.”

The practical effect of the sanctions — beyond the breach of comity of nations — may well be overblown.

The European Union has its own arms embargo against Iran that is not set to expire until 2023, once the International Atomic Energy Agency rules that the government in Tehran has followed the terms of the nuclear deal. The European arms embargo could be lifted sooner, but only if the I.A.E.A. formally certifies that all of Iran’s nuclear activity is peaceful.

That is unlikely, after Israel conducted a raid on an Iranian warehouse two years ago that contained weapons plans dating back two decades. And in reaction to Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, Iran has already exceeded the limits of nuclear fuel production as defined by the accord with world powers.

Additionally, the I.A.E.A this year accused Iran of preventing inspectors from visiting suspect sites, before Tehran gave international inspectors access to those blocked sites.

Until the European arms embargo is lifted, foreign diplomats predicted that companies and business employees in Europe would continue to adhere to it — making the United Nations sanctions largely irrelevant for Western allies.

Instead, they may serve as a warning to China, Russia and other American adversaries that have signaled interest in selling arms to Iran.

Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran policy, said the United Nations sanctions should compel European nations to “cooperate closely with us as, and when, they see any effort by Russia, China, or anybody else to sell arms to Iran.”

He said that would also include transfer of nuclear and missile-related technologies to Iran.

But beyond that, the sanctions announced on Saturday would mostly target Iran, banning its nuclear enrichment and reprocessing activities and its ballistic missile program.

They also would allow foreign inspections of ships and airplanes believed to be carrying banned nuclear or weapons material and the freezing of financial assets of Iranians associated with those programs.

Additionally, the actions urge the international community against giving loans, financial assistance or grants to Iran in most cases beyond humanitarian purposes.

The Trump administration did not explicitly demand that other international sanctions against Iran — against its oil, minerals and financial sectors — be reimposed. That could curb the effect of the sharp economic crackdown that the United States is promoting.

Mr. Abrams said more details would be released starting on Monday. He predicted the return of the sanctions “will have a very significant impact,” given that much of the world’s economy runs through American financial systems and could easily snare violators — at least by stopping the trade.

The economic penalties are being reimposed as debate at the annual United Nations General Assembly begins on Tuesday. The theme of the session this year, the “necessity of multilateralism,” is a pointed message to the United States, which is also pulling back from the World Health Organization and taking punitive action against the International Criminal Court’s prosecution of war crimes in Afghanistan. Both organizations are supported by the United Nations, which itself is a frequent target of criticism from the Trump administration.

Farnaz Fassihi and Rick Gladstone contributed reporting from New York.

Lara Jakes is a diplomatic correspondent based in the Washington bureau of The New York Times. Over the past two decades, Ms. Jakes has reported and edited from more than 40 countries and covered war and sectarian fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, the West Bank and Northern Ireland. @jakesNYT

David E. Sanger is a national security correspondent. In a 36-year reporting career for The Times, he has been on three teams that have won Pulitzer Prizes, most recently in 2017 for international reporting. His newest book is “The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age.” @SangerNYT • Facebook