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With the coronavirus pandemic rightly taking center-stage over the past few months, the limelight has been shifted from traditionally discussed topics of foreign policy.

Policy Summary
With the coronavirus pandemic rightly taking center-stage over the past few months, the limelight has been shifted from traditionally discussed topics of foreign policy. However, this does not mean that the Department of State has shuttered its doors and ceased working. In fact, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came forward in late April with a rather convoluted plan to re-impose UN sanctions on Iran by way of a thorny legal argument that worked around President Trump’s declaration of withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the unilateral application of sanctions by the U.S. The strategy was conjured up by the Trump administration following the realization that the UN conventional arms embargo on Iran was going to expire in October, with Russia desiring to return to business-as-usual arms sales with the Iranian regime. The Trump administration has argued that if the arms embargo is not extended past its expiration date in the fall, that Iran will begin re-supplying weaponry to various national security threats and terrorist groups.

Let’s begin by first looking at what the Iran nuclear deal is meant to do and what state it is currently in. First, the accord is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the JCPOA. The Obama-era agreement was struck between Iran, the U.S., EU, China, France, Russia, UK, and Germany; with the U.S. being the arguable lynchpin. The JCPOA forced Iran to send 97% of its generated nuclear fuel to Russia (as of 2016), along with limiting its production of nuclear material for the duration of 15 years and opening Iran’s nuclear facilities to inspection by the UN. In terms of the JCPOA’s current state, to all of the available evidence, Iran followed the agreement for a year following Trump’s declaration of the U.S.’s withdrawal from the accord but has been gradually violating set restrictions over the past year despite rebukes and threats by abiding European signatories. The Iranian regime has declared that it will go back to abiding by JCPOA limitations if Trump agrees to lift U.S. sanctions and re-enters the deal on the previous terms. Despite these sanctions, Iran has refused to negotiate with the Trump administration, which wishes to negotiate a far more stringent nuclear agreement.

We can now turn to Pompeo’s new strategy to drag Iran kicking and screaming to the negotiation table. The tactic relies upon the UN upholding Pompeo’s claim that despite Trump unilaterally imposing sanctions and declaring U.S. withdrawal from the deal, that the U.S. is still a so-called “participant state” to the deal due to it being an original signatory. If this premise is accepted, the U.S. would hypothetically be able to pressure the restoration of pre-2015 UN sanctions on oil sales and banking activities if the arms embargo is not prolonged. The Trump administration would then be able to lord its ability to re-impose far more stringent sanctions over Russia, ensuring that the U.S.-backed arms embargo would be extended.

It was reported by the New York Times that Pompeo is anticipating that upon the U.S. demanding that the Security Council prolong the arms embargo, Russia will immediately veto it. The U.S. would then assert that it is still a participant in the deal, as it is an original signatory and argue that Trump’s declaration of withdrawal did not revoke the U.S.’s rights as such. The Times did not provide the text of this legal argument, but I am curious as to how Pompeo can make such an assertion. Setting this aside however, if the claim is accepted by the UN, the U.S. would then point to Iran’s violation of the treaty’s limitations and demand a return to pre-2015 UN sanctions, as put forth in the JCPOA.

Analysis:

This is, at best and in my untrained legal opinion, a tenuous gray area to say the least. Although the U.S. is certainly an original signatory to the JCPOA under Obama, Trump has most definitely withdrawn from the deal and has been imposing US sanctions for the past two years. I may not be a lawyer nor am I well-versed in contracts, but it was my understanding that upon a party choosing to leave an agreement, it can no longer make demands as though it is a participant in said agreement. How does Trump leaving the JCPOA mean the U.S. has retained its powers as a signatory? I am not arguing that the arms embargo should not be extended or that its extension is not in the best interest of U.S. national security, but that the Trump administration is flagrantly attempting to have its cake and eat it too. A small criticism perhaps in the enormous fabric of the fight over the Iran deal, but certainly a bizarre one of note.

In addition, Pompeo’s plan was announced after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps launched a military satellite, which he asserted to be proof of Iran’s space program not being peaceful in nature. What this has to do with the UN arms embargoes and the nuclear deal I have no idea. Perhaps it was meant as evidence of Iranian aggression that would support the use of Pompeo’s legalese tactic? Who knows? Either way it’s an odd spark for an equally odd case.

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