The JCPOA, Middle East Peace, and the US Presidential Election

August 24, 2020

The UN Security Council has adopted seven resolutions[i] addressing Iran’s nuclear program. Only Resolution 2231 (2015) remains in effect today. After Iran and the P5+1 reached agreement on the JCPOA, the Security Council endorsed the deal through this Resolution and set up measures to lift UN sanctions targeting Iran’s nuclear program. However, it kept certain restrictions on ballistic missile activities and arms sales. The latter is set to expire on October 18, 2020, five years after JCPOA’s Adoption Day.

Ten days ago, a US draft resolution seeking to extend the 13-year-old UN arms embargo on Iran beyond October 18, 2020 failed at the Security Council. Only the US and Dominican Republic voted for the draft. Russia and China voted against. France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Estonia, Germany, Indonesia, Niger, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, South Africa, Tunisia, and Vietnam abstained.

The result was no surprise for Washington. Now, within the framework of its policy of “maximum pressure”, the US has launched a process under Resolution 2231[ii], to trigger the sanctions “snapback” clause of the JCPOA against Iran.

According to paragraphs 11 and 12 of Resolution 2231, if a party to the JCPOA were to notify the Security Council of Iran’s violation of its commitments, the Council would study the contents of the notification. And if it were to disagree with the notification, it must pass a new resolution, within 30 days, confirming the termination of the sanctions as agreed in Resolution 2231. However, the country making the notification – in this case the US – may choose to veto the new resolution, thus triggering a “snapback”.

This would mean that all the provisions of the earlier six resolutions which had been terminated under Resolution 2231 shall apply in the same manner as they applied before, including the arms embargo. In brief, all UN sanctions would be restored.

Last Thursday Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered the notification to the president of the UN Security Council and told the press that the US had the right to reimpose sanctions under UN resolution 2231.

The “snapback” clause was one of the toughest issues of the P5+1 negotiations. Iran finally agreed to it, no doubt believing that the US would stand by the nuclear deal. But in 2018 the Trump administration officially withdrew to from the JCPOA. With a tool like the “snapback”, this may now be seen as a rash decision.

Last Thursday, Foreign Ministers of Germany, France and the UK published a statement saying:

“Our position regarding the effectiveness of the US notification pursuant to resolution 2231 has consequently been very clearly expressed to the Presidency and all UNSC Members.

“We cannot therefore support this action which is incompatible with our current efforts to support the JCPOA.

“France, Germany and the United Kingdom (“the E3”) are committed to preserving the processes and institutions which constitute the foundation of multilateralism. We remain guided by the objective of upholding the authority and integrity of the United Nations Security Council. We call on all UNSC members to refrain from any action that would only deepen divisions in the Security Council or that would have serious adverse consequences on its work.”

US Secretary of State Pompeo must be aware of the likely negative consequences of this latest initiative not only for relations between major powers and the UN but also for transatlantic ties. Some have suggested that US action may take the Security Council to uncharted waters. But the US is only ten weeks away from presidential elections and domestic politics have priority.

Regional adversaries of Iran and the JCPOA, Israel and the Gulf states, would like to see the sanctions continue. The Israel-UAE agreement on the normalization of relations was presented by Washington as a major step forward and Secretary Pompeo is working on other countries to follow the example to create a more visible anti-Iran regional bloc.

PM Netanyahu’s relationship with President Obama was not as cozy as his relationship with Mr. Trump’s to say the least. Yes, President Obama never failed to underline America’s strong bonds with Israel but he also said that the US remains committed to the belief that the Palestinian people have a right to live with security and dignity in their own sovereign state. Such language did not please Mr. Netanyahu.

In March 2015 PM Netanyahu visited Washington only two weeks before Israeli elections upon the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner. The White House in explaining why President Obama chose not to meet Mr. Netanyahu, referred to a “long-standing practice and principle” by which the president does not meet with heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections.

On February 15, 2017 PM Netanyahu became the fourth foreign leader to visit the Trump White House. Following their talks, President Trump started off the joint press conference by reiterating that one of the worst deals he had ever seen was the Iran nuclear deal. He also rejected the “unfair and one-sided actions at the United Nations” that target Israel. (He was referring to UN Security Council Resolution 2334 of December 23, 2016 condemning Israel’s settlement policy. Fourteen UN Security Council members voted for the resolution while the Obama administration abstained to Israel’s disappointment.) Mr. Netanyahu had only words of support for the President and he presented the Netanyahus and the Trumps as one big family.

The atmospherics of President Trump’s visit to Jerusalem in May 2017 were no different. On December 7, 2017 President Trump announced that Washington was officially recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Finally, on May 14, 2018 US opened its embassy in Jerusalem.

The upcoming US presidential election will be critical to America’s future for a host of reasons extending from America’s internal challenges such as polarization, government dysfunction, shortcomings of the fight against Covid-19 and the economy to renewed great power competition. One way or the other, the result would have an impact on US foreign policy and global politics including transatlantic relations. Because even with President Trump remaining in the White House for a second term, it would be more difficult to keep some issues on the back burner.

In so far as relations with Iran, the JCPOA and Middle East peace are concerned, President Trump will surely stand his ground on the nuclear deal and highlight the Israel-UAE deal as a landmark development towards Middle East peace. Mr. Biden says that his priority would be restoring world’s confidence in the White House. He is likely to tread a fine line on Middle East peace but supportive of Israel, because he too is a friend of Israel.

Would PM Netanyahu remain on the sidelines or try to return at least some of Mr. Trump’s many favors? How will Mr. Biden react to Trump administration’s continuing efforts to trash the JCPOA? After all, he was the Vice President at the time and JCPOA was a signature diplomatic achievement for President Obama. What if he wins the election? Would the US then go back to supporting the JCPOA or seek “improvements”? How would Russia and China react to a less than complete reversal of US policy?

This is how presidential candidate Mr. Biden responded to a Council on Foreign Relations question on the Iran nuclear deal a year ago:

“What Iran is doing is dangerous, but still reversible. If Iran moves back into compliance with its nuclear obligations, I would re-enter the JCPOA as a starting point to work alongside our allies in Europe and other world powers to extend the deal’s nuclear constraints. Doing so would provide a critical down payment to re-establish U.S. credibility, signaling to the world that America’s word and international commitments once again mean something. I would also leverage renewed international consensus around America’s Iran policy—and a redoubled commitment to diplomacy—to more effectively push back against Tehran’s other malign behavior in the region.”[iii]

And this is Senator Kamala Harris’ answer to the same question:

“Based on where things stand now, I would plan to rejoin the JCPOA so long as Iran also returned to verifiable compliance. At the same time, I would seek negotiations with Iran to extend and supplement some of the nuclear deal’s existing provisions, and work with our partners to counter Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the region, including with regard to its ballistic missile program.”  

As for Turkish-American relations, these are at their lowest point in decades with many unresolved issues and this state of affairs may prove unsustainable regardless of who wins the election.


[i] Resolution 1696 (2006), Resolution 1737 (2006), Resolution 1747 (2007), Resolution 1803 (2008), Resolution 1835 (2008), Resolution 1929 (2010),  Resolution 2231 (2015)




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