Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The U.S. Triggered the Snapback Mechanism after Failing to Extend the Arms Embargo on Iran

Filed under: Iran, U.S. Policy

The U.S. Triggered the Snapback Mechanism after Failing to Extend the Arms Embargo on Iran
Iran and the United States confronted each other in the UN Security Council, August 24, 2020. (Bobian News, Iran)

Iran “celebrated” the defeat of U.S. diplomacy at the United Nations (UN) after the United States’ proposal to extend the arms embargo on Iran under the Security Council Resolution 2231 was rejected on August 14, 2020. Only the Dominican Republic voted in favor, while Russia, China, and other UN Security Council (UNSC) members abstained.

Following Iran’s achievement at the UNSC, Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, said on August 15, 2020, that the nuclear deal Iran signed in 2015 is the cause of the U.S. failure to extend the arms embargo on Iran.

Rouhani mocked the United States, saying the UN vote was a diplomatic success for Iran and a political and legal defeat for the United States that, for the first time, submitted a draft resolution to the Security Council, and only one small country voted for it. “Look at the humiliation the United States has experienced … and what power the Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA) still has. This is the same battered agreement that has taken so many blows in the last three years because of the crimes of the United States and the attitude of the Zionist regime (Israel). This half-dead agreement stood against the United States and defeated it.”

Cartoon showing President Trump begging at the United Nations for the “snapback,” after failing to get support for the arms embargo.
Iran’s Tasnim News showing President Trump begging at the United Nations for the “snapback,” after failing to get support for the arms embargo.

Rouhani reiterated to his bitter domestic conservative critics of the JCPOA that the preservation of the nuclear deal is essential for maintaining regional and international security. Against this background, the President of Iran, who sharply criticized the United Arab Emirates for normalizing relations with Israel,1 called on the countries of the region to learn a lesson from the resounding American failure and distance themselves from the United States.

On August 9, 2020, before the UNSC convened to discuss the U.S. resolution, the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – called on the Security Council to extend the arms embargo imposed on Iran.2  According to them, “Iran continues to distribute conventional weapons to terrorist organizations and separatists in the region and to intervene militarily in its neighboring countries directly or through its satellites trained in its territory.”

Against this background, the GCC claimed, “It would be inappropriate to remove the restrictions on Iran’s ability to export conventional weapons until it ceases its activities that cause instability in the region and stops supplying weapons to terrorist organizations and separatist groups … this is to ensure stability in the region and the world.” The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman expressed regret over the Gulf Cooperation Council’s “unconstructive appeal” to the Security Council and said that the Gulf Cooperation Council secretariat is influenced by “anti-Iranian positions and destructive and erroneous policies” of some of its member states.

Following the failure at the UNSC, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “It is unfortunate that France and Britain did not support the demand of the Gulf States and Israel.” He further stated, “The UNSC failure to defend international security is a grave mistake and is unforgivable.3 The Security Council had failed to recognize Iran’s responsibility and allows the world’s biggest supporter of terrorism to sell and buy lethal weapons and ignore the demands of the Middle East countries. The United States will continue to work to correct this error.”4

Following the U.S. failure at the Security Council, a spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry stated, “The international community has once again rejected in a clear voice the destructive and irresponsible attempts of the United States to undermine the credibility of the UNSC.” He also added, “In the 75 years of United Nations history, America has never been so isolated.” 

Six days after its  failure at the Security Council, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered (August 20) letters to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and the Security Council president, Indonesian Ambassador Dian Triansyah Djanipushing, activating the “snapback” mechanism5 intended to automatically reinstate all the U.N. sanctions on Iran that existed prior to the 2015 JCPOA agreement.

 Earlier, U.S. President Donald Trump said, “We knew in advance what would be the results of the vote at the Security Council… We will resort to the snapback mechanism, and you will see it next week.”6

The U.S. State Department drafted a legal document claiming that the United States, although it withdrew from the JCPOA, can still legally “participate” in the nuclear accord, and thus, the United States reserves the legal right to use provisions in UNSC 2231 if there is significant Iranian noncompliance. Iran argues that the United States is not eligible to use provisions in the agreement because it withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018 and is therefore not a party to the agreement.

Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, said on August 21, 2020, “The United States has no authority to take such action…” and that all the remaining parties to the JCPOA, including the three European states, Russia and China, “immediately and strongly” opposed such a “groundless and illegal” request. Khatibzadeh expected that the other members of the Council adopt a similar stance soon. He added that the United States has become so isolated even among its three European allies (Britain, France and Germany) that it has termed them Iran’s ayatollahs.”

Russia, China, and the EU3 (Germany, France and the UK) which are partners to the agreement, also disagree, arguing that once the United States withdrew from the agreement, it can no longer use the mechanism. In any case, the United States decision to resort to the snapback mechanism could deepen tensions with European countries and even among the Security Council member states. Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, described the United States’ attempt to reactivate the “snapback” mechanism as “illegal and unacceptable … Do not think that if the United States shouts and repeats its words, it reserves the right to act … The United States knows that it cannot activate the ‘snapback’ mechanism.”

Javad Zarif Tweet quotes John Bolton
Javad Zarif Tweet quotes John Bolton

Zarif even went so far as to quote John Bolton, one of the key hawks in formulating American anti-Iranian policy, who said in 2018 and again in a recent interview on August 19, 2020, that after the United States withdrew from the JCPOA, it will not be able to apply the clauses in the decision of the UNSC 2231.7 Following the U.S. appeal to trigger the snapback mechanism, Zarif tweeted in the same spirit a video under the title of “in their own words” featuring top U.S. officials announcing the American’ withdrawal from the JCPOA, and, therefore, the United States had no right to trigger the snapback.8

Iran’s permanent representative at the United Nations, Majid Takht-Ravanchi, said that the UN Security Council vote (August 14) reflected the absolute isolation of the United States who believed that a Chinese or Russian veto would have been needed to take the resolution off the UN agenda, but it the end, it was clear that it was not even necessary. He also added that the American threat to return the sanctions via the “snapback” had no legal basis since the United States had withdrawn from the Iranian nuclear deal.9

Ali Khezrian, spokesman of the influential Article 90 Majlis Committee,10 proposed on August 17, 2020, draft legislation for Iran’s revocation of the 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA) if UN sanctions are re-imposed, arguing that Iran would not benefit from remaining in the JCPOA if the United States successfully reinstates the snapback mechanism. “The U.S. administration, which is one of the chief violators of the JCPOA,” Khezrian argued, “is trying to trigger the snapback mechanism, in which case remaining in the JCPOA with the return of UNSC sanctions would be devoid of any benefits.” Khezrian added, “I have presented a doubly urgent plan for Iran’s ‘automatic withdrawal from the JCPOA in case the snapback mechanism is activated.’” 

On August 18, 2020, the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee condemned the United States’ “disgraceful effort” to trigger JCPOA’s snapback mechanism and listed possible counter-measures. It called on the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to increase uranium enrichment capacity to 190,000 separative work units (SWU)11 using modern IR-4, IR-6, and IR-8 centrifuges and to set enrichment levels back to pre-JCPOA points. The committee warned, “If America’s greedy and illegal measure will advance, the committee is prepared to present and approve necessary bills.”12

In the spirit of President Rouhani, Iranian media outlets emphasized the “additional defeat that befell American diplomacy in the UN, the American solitude in the world, Western nations distancing themselves from the United States, and their solidarity with Iran on the nuclear issue.” The Keyhan newspaper headlined, “Bitter defeat for the United States and Europe versus Russia and China.” The Abrar newspaper proclaimed in its headline, “The anti-Iranian American resolution was defeated.” The centrist, reformist paper Ebtekar stressed the “American isolation among the international community.” Following the U.S. move to trigger the snapback mechanism, Iranian media emphasized the opposition of 13 members of the UNSC to the U.S. move and its growing isolation in international politics.

After the American defeat in the Security Council, Russia initiated several measures in an attempt to find new avenues to solve the Iranian nuclear crisis. Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, at President Putin’s initiative, discussed on August 16 with his American counterpart the option of convening a meeting of the Security Council’s permanent members, Germany, and Iran to find a “comprehensive solution to the Persian Gulf’s security situation that would take into account all the sides’ interests and concerns.” According to the Russian foreign ministry, the discussion came at the Americans’ initiative.

On August 14, President Vladimir Putin “proposed holding an online summit of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany, and Iran soon to focus on the JCPOA implementation issues.”13 “The aim of the meeting,” according to Putin’s statement, is to “set out steps to avoid confrontation and tensions in the UN Security Council…. The situation is getting worse. There are groundless accusations against Iran. Draft resolutions are being drawn up aimed at destroying the previous unanimous decisions of the Security Council.”

The failure of the United States to extend the arms embargo on Iran (which will expire on October 18, 2020) reflects the familiar gaps in the nuclear issue between the United States, on one side, and Russia and China and the European partnership on the other. European countries continue to pump up the nuclear agreement despite their inability to meet their economic commitments to Iran, while Iran continues to erode key components of the JCPOA by raising the percentage of uranium enrichment and uranium stockpiling , as well as continuing the development of advanced centrifuges.  As for the embargo, Western countries and the United Nations itself recognize that Iran has over the years intentionally violated its arms embargo and provides weapons – especially ballistic missiles and cruise missiles – to Houthi rebels in Yemen, weapons used to attack energy and civilian infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. For example, Germany’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Günter Sautter, said after rejecting the U.S. decision to extend the embargo that Germany was still committed to the nuclear agreement and that Iran’s arms transfers to Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq were in violation of the 2015 U.N. resolution.

Iran Is Still Left with Dire Crises

Although Iran recorded a moral and resounding victory over the United States in the Security Council, it did not advance the resolution of the severe deepening crises it faces and does not herald the lifting of crippling sanctions, especially in the energy sector.

Nevertheless, it is the first tangible achievement derived directly from the nuclear deal, and it may allow the purchase of conventional armaments – mainly from China and Russia, anchors of support for the implementation of the nuclear deal – and even gain legitimacy to export weapons to its Middle East proxies, especially in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon.

Within Iran, Rouhani, who is subjected to repeated attacks by the vocal conservative opponents of the nuclear deal, can harness the achievement and argue that by the end of the year Iran could upgrade its defense capabilities and even put money into the country’s depleting cash resources by selling conventional weapons. Furthermore, Rouhani can argue that the expected removal of the embargo on missile equipment in 2023 is imminent if patience, perseverance, and responsibility are carefully maintained. UN Resolution 2231 preserves the arms embargo on Iran for five years after implementation and the sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program for eight years.

On the other hand, the United States registered a diplomatic victory when it succeeded in normalizing relations between Israel and the UAE, which in the past stood as an important Iranian channel for bypassing sanctions primarily through the smuggling of goods. For Iran, this is a major blow in its own backyard, given the strengthening of the UAE’s position in the Sunni Arab region where they consider Iran as a looming existential threat. The UAE’s new ties with Israel and continued U.S. strategic support are challenges to the Ayatollah regime. The main Iranian concern is that these developments will increase the American and Israeli presence in the Persian Gulf region.

As far as Europe is concerned, it seems that European countries continue to favor the potential for economic relations inherent in continuing to maintain ties with Iran on a low flame while at the same time bearing the limitations of the American shadow over their activities. Their unsurprising choice to sit on the fence and avoid a UN vote indicates that they continue to adhere to their policy of not confronting Iran, despite the repeated violations of the arms embargo and the nuclear agreement. Beyond that, European states do not want to team up and be complicit in President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s obvious anti-Iranian policies and any future moves to influence the next term of the president of the United States during the “lame duck” period, especially if Trump is not re-elected. That is why they choose to maintain some leeway that will allow them to advance what is left of the nuclear agreement initiated by President Obama and to which Democratic candidate Biden has hinted he intends to return.

Iran, for its part, is using the window until the U.S. elections to deepen the wedge between the United States and Russia, China, and the other countries that signed the nuclear agreement. Iran seeks to deepen American isolation in the international arena. However, Iran faces enormous challenges – in Lebanon (following the Beirut port bombing and the criticism of it and Hizbullah in its wake), on the home front, and in the Persian Gulf (normalizing relations between the UAE and Israel).

Moreover, Iran faces a growing test when it comes to realizing its anti-American and anti-Zionist ideology. Its promise to retaliate for the elimination of Qassem Soleimani, Commander of the Al-Quds force, is still open (as the Commander of the Revolutionary Guards reiterated recently), and the UAE’s “betrayal,” to use Tehran’s term, still hovers over the Arab world. How will Iran behave, and can it show restraint in the face of the cracks in its influence and sympathy among the “Arab street” in the Middle East? As Sadegh Zibakalam, one of the regime’s most outspoken critics, pointed out, the regime’s billions of dollars in investments in the opposition front in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon could go down the drain.

* * *






5 Resolution 2231 (2015) stipulates that the Security Council, within 30 days of receiving a notification by a JCPOA participant State of an issue that the JCPOA participant State believes constitutes significant non-performance of commitments under the JCPOA, shall vote on a draft resolution to continue in effect the terminations of the provisions of previous Security Council resolutions.





10  Article 90, empowers Majlis to hold the state bodies (judiciary, intelligence, or even military and law enforcement forces) “accountable” regarding their decisions and policies.

11   The 190,000 SWU is a goal set by the Supreme Leader both before the signing of the JCPOA and after the US withdrew from the agreement in 2018.