America’s ‘Snapback’ On Iran Nuclear Deal Shows UN’s Irrelevance

Iran, Russia, China and America’s Democratic party presidential candidate, Joe Biden, agree on one thing: America under President Donald Trump is “isolated.” Iran even goes as far as to declare victory over America. In his speech to the UN General Assembly, President Hassan Rouhani said that whoever is elected US president in the November elections “will have no choice but to surrender to the resilience of the Iranian nation.” Economic indicators, however, tell a different story.

Since Trump turned against the Iran nuclear deal that was negotiated between Tehran and major world powers, and re-imposed unilateral sanctions on Iran in 2018, the latter’s economy has been in freefall. The IMF reported that in 2019, Iran’s GDP shrank 7.6 percent while inflation rose 41 percent. So far this year, the Iranian rial has lost 49 percent of its value.

European governments in Berlin, Paris and London promised to circumvent the US sanctions. Moscow and Beijing also were on board. But despite their best efforts, the five capitals could not weaken America’s powerful financial grip. Washington managed to strangle Iran’s economy.

More recent developments include a looming major deadline. On October 18, a UN arms embargo from 2007, which is referred to in the nuclear deal, is set to expire. When Washington consulted with the three European capitals, all their leaders expressed vehement opposition to the end of the embargo and promised to back America in its efforts to extend it at the UN.

Tehran wasted no time. It threatened the European three that should Biden be elected president and US sanctions on Iran removed, they would lose lucrative contracts that their companies had won after the nuclear deal was approved at the Security Council. The biggest contract is worth $25 billion, signed between Iran and aircraft manufacturer Airbus. The Europeans balked and told America that they had had a change of heart on the arms embargo.

America saw in the European turnaround an opportunity to trigger the nuclear deal’s “snapback” mechanism to reinstate UN sanctions. With the Europeans apparently more concerned about contracts than security, Washington first called the Europeans’ bluff by allowing its embargo resolution to be voted upon and defeated at the Security Council, and then demanding the activation of the snapback mechanism.

Although the US maintained that the mechanism would be activated simply when a signatory to the treaty informed the Security Council, the Europeans, Russia and China counter-argued that America had withdrawn from the deal when it unilaterally re-imposed sanctions. America said that, legally, its name was still there as a signatory to the deal, and hence all it had to do was inform the UN of its decision to initiate the snapback process.

So while Iran and Russia celebrated the defeat of the US resolution on the arms embargo and depicted it as the end of global unilateralism and American hegemony and proof, supposedly, of America’s isolation, Washington went on to consider the UN sanctions on Iran as reinstated and instructed its government agencies to act accordingly.

UN shenanigans and international trash talk aside, the US sanctions on Iran have proven that when the UN acts against America, it is not the US that suffers isolation: it is the UN that risks irrelevance.

American unilateral sanctions have caused the Iranian economy to contract at an unprecedented rate. The UN could do nothing to mitigate, let alone remove, those sanctions. Iran and the Europeans now are betting that if Biden is elected president, US sanctions would be removed and America would rejoin the nuclear deal. But if Biden does not remove the sanctions, or if Trump is reelected, there is little the UN can do.

By going against the UN, America is neither the first nor the last nation to pursue its own interests, regardless of global opinion and the UN. Russia stands in defiance of global consensus against its occupation of parts of Georgia and the Ukraine, while China disregarded the entire world as it clamped down on Hong Kong. The Europeans themselves often behave as if they occupy the moral high ground while flouting a dozen international regulations, while Iran – famous for its sponsorship of global terrorism – is in violation of a number of UN resolutions.

By outmaneuvering Washington at the UN Security Council, Tehran, Moscow, Beijing and the European capitals did not beat America. They undermined the UN.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.