US targets expiring Iran arms embargo at risk of angry allies
Officials including Secretary of State Michael Pompeo are warning that the US could try to force a "snapback" of sanctions against Teheran by all United Nations Security Council members as part of the 2015 Iran nuclear accord if the arms embargo is allowed to expire in October.
"We are operating under the assumption that we will be able to renew the arms embargo," Mr Brian Hook, the US Special Representative for Iran, told reporters last week.
If council members don't go along, he warned, "we are well within our rights" to snap back all UN sanctions.
That's not an interpretation many countries agree with.
While not wanting to feud publicly with the US, European diplomats speaking on condition that they not be identified say the US forfeited any such right when President Donald Trump decided to end "US participation" in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, which he calls the "worst deal ever".
Renewing the arms embargo won't be easy. Russia has repeatedly indicated it will oppose an extension, and China isn't likely to go along with the US proposal either.
Both have veto power on the Security Council.
Allies and adversaries see US officials as trying to have it both ways: stay out of the deal they disagree with except when they need some of its provisions to press allies to exit it too.
The administration calculates that the deal's collapse would increase pressure for Iran, which has resumed building a stockpile of fissile material, to agree to a more wide-ranging accord that doesn't have "sunsets", or clauses that expire over time.
With Iran already under a raft of US sanctions that limit the ability of other nations to trade with it, the impact of a snapback would be largely symbolic. But the political impact of effectively killing off the 2015 accord would be potent.
A public dispute over the embargo and a proposed snapback would also further highlight the inability of the Security Council, meant to be the UN's most powerful body, to reach agreement on almost any contentious issue.
The council has already been hamstrung for weeks trying to pass a resolution about the coronavirus pandemic, as a feud between China and the US over the virus's origins has blocked progress.
Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon said Security Council members should "take the US threat seriously" when it comes to the arms embargo and the snapback proposal.
The US "can't force the vote on the Security Council, and they could face a veto, so what they can do is place a price tag, and that's what they're doing now", Mr Danon said in a phone interview.
Officials in Berlin, Paris and London say they recognise Washington's concerns over the embargo's expiration, but they argue that concern over conventional arms sales shouldn't sabotage efforts to keep the nuclear accord in place.
"Europeans are still in the mood of salvaging the deal," said Dr Naysan Rafati, the International Crisis Group's Iran analyst.
"The Europeans actually agree with the Americans on a lot when it comes to Iran, but they diverge on whether to try and keep the JCPOA alive as a basis for discussions."
While European officials have kept quiet publicly, Iran has lashed out at US threats.
"2 yrs ago, @SecPompeo and his boss declared 'CEASING US participation' in JCPOA, dreaming that their 'max pressure' would bring Iran to its knees," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted.
"Given that policy's abject failure, he now wants to be JCPOA participant. Stop dreaming: Iranian Nation always decides its destiny."
With the nuclear accord in limbo, Iran has gradually reduced its commitments to the deal, reducing the time it would take for Teheran to build a nuclear bomb to less than a year, according to a senior Western diplomat.
The embargo's end would theoretically allow Iran to move ahead with purchases of conventional weapons from Russia and China.
That could let Iran modernise its forces by buying advanced weapons systems that it has mostly been unable to acquire for decades, including advanced fighter aircraft and main battle tanks, the Pentagon warned in November.
Yet even if the embargo were to expire, plenty of obstacles remain for Iran to buy weapons.
Secondary US sanctions, for instance, would make any country think twice before selling to Iran. The European Union also has its own arms embargo on Iran.
The issue is a top political priority for Mr Trump, with the October expiration coming just weeks before presidential elections in the US.
Hawkish advisers to the Trump administration think the US shouldn't even waste time with a UN resolution, going straight to the snapback option instead.
"It's useless to waste time trying to extend the arms embargo with a resolution that is likely to fail," said Mr Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, which has helped guide the Trump administration's Iran sanctions policies.
"Even if you could get Russians to agree, all you've done is gained a very short-term extension of the arms embargo. "