Eurasia Group | US-Iran tensions to escalate with UN vote

US-Iran tensions to escalate with UN vote

10 August 2020
main Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and US President Donald Trump. REUTERS.
President Donald Trump's administration will force a vote this week to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran, likely leading to the final unraveling of the deal the country struck with world powers in 2015 to scale back its nuclear program. With Trump's odds of winning reelection in November sinking, US hawks are trying to escalate pressure against Iran to tie the hands of Democratic challenger Joe Biden, who would likely resume diplomatic outreach to the US's long-time foe. The coming months will be fraught with risk. 

The UN vote

As part of the nuclear agreement, world powers and Iran agreed that the UN arms embargo would expire in October 2020. The Trump administration, which withdrew from the deal in 2018, opposes the expiration of the embargo and has warned that Iran would go on an international arms buying spree. The evidence for this concern is mixed, especially in the near term: facing an economic crisis, Iran has limited financial capacity to order big-ticket weapons, and Russia and China, the most likely exporters, face political constraints. Nevertheless, the US has drafted a hardline resolution to extend the embargo indefinitely. Washington's campaign has fallen on deaf ears. Russia and China, which hold vetoes in the Security Council, will almost certainly block the proposal. It's possible that the veto will not even be necessary, as the resolution may not earn the requisite nine votes in favor. That would be a particularly vivid demonstration of the Trump administration's isolation on the Iran issue.

Disputed snapback

The US has threatened that if it doesn't get its way on the arms embargo extension, it will trigger the return of all UN sanctions on Iran and formally scrub the nuclear agreement from the books. Indeed, for US hawks, the arms embargo issue is merely a pretext to accomplish this larger goal. The architects of the nuclear agreement put in a provision allowing the US—or any other Security Council permanent member—to unilaterally annul the agreement if Iran committed “significant nonperformance.” Washington claims that it can trigger snapback even though it publicly withdrew from the deal. Diplomats in Russia, China, and Europe reject this logic. The fight in the Security Council will likely end with uncertainty about the status of snapback: the US will argue it happened while Russia and China will say it didn't. And that will leave Iran with a significant choice about how to respond.

For US hardliners, the urgency of killing the agreement is closely linked to the increasing likelihood of a Biden presidency. The Trump administration has taken a number of steps to make it more difficult for a future president to re-enter the nuclear deal or something like it, such as by creating duplicative layers of sanctions to make them more difficult to remove. Triggering snapback would be the icing on the cake. None of this precludes Biden from re-entering the deal. It just makes it more politically complicated, especially if Iran responds to snapback by taking more aggressive nuclear steps, moving farther away from the nuclear deal's limits and closer to a weapons capability.

Heightened risk in the months ahead

Tehran is facing an increasingly challenging domestic and international environment. US sanctions have significantly weakened its economy, and the coronavirus pandemic has killed thousands and further undermined public trust in government. A key facility at the Natanz nuclear site was destroyed early last month, apparently in an Israeli sabotage effort. Tehran has largely acted with restraint, on the assumption that Biden is likely to win and that a conflict before then could benefit Trump. But Tehran's restraint is not open-ended. Tehran will likely be forced to respond to the snapback in the coming months, such as by formally withdrawing from the agreement itself or curtailing international inspections of its nuclear facilities.

Beyond snapback and the nuclear issue, there are additional risks this fall. The US or Israel could escalate in other ways, on the assumption that it would be a “win win”—either Iran does not respond, and the action is “cost-free,” or it does respond and further isolates itself. This is a risky assumption, as Iran is skilled at threading the needle and conducting attacks in ways that cannot be traced back to it. US or Israeli action could include additional cyber operations, sabotage at nuclear facilities, or potentially seizing Iranian ships at sea. That means more risk in US-Iran relations as the US election approaches.
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