UK must urgently trigger ‘snapback’ sanctions on Iran

With other options slow and ineffective, we need to stand ready to use this provision to set an example for our international allies


NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 19: President Iran Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi speaks during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) at the United Nations headquarters on September 19, 2023 in New York City. Heads of states and governments from at least 145 countries are gathered for the 78th UNGA session amid the ongoing war in Ukraine and natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and fires around the globe. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

September 28, 2023 13:04

As the United Nations General Assembly wraps up its 78th session in New York this week, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been enjoying a leadership position, having been appointed as a vice-president of the UNGA78.

Meanwhile, with jaw-dropping disregard for the danger Iran’s nuclear programme poses, Iran’s UN envoy, Heidar-Ali Balouji, has been appointed as rapporteur of the Disarmament and International Security Committee, charged with presenting resolutions on disarmament, global challenges and threats to peace that affect the international community.

These examples of the acceptance of Iran as worthy of leadership among the community of nations —despite its well-documented human rights violations and the decades-long threat of its unabated nuclear programme — underscores the necessity of shining a strong light on Tehran’s violations of international law.

The 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is due to conclude its eighth year on October 18 and several provisions of the deal are set to expire or “sunset” — known as Transition Day — initiating a series of lapsing limitations, gradually allowing Iran to escalate its nuclear programme while permitting the expiration of missile and military restrictions.

In May 2018, the United States withdrew from the deal because of Iran’s non-compliance, and since then remaining parties have examined various instruments for accountability and enforcement.

One such instrument is the JCPOA’s dispute resolution mechanism (DRM) for resolving disagreements between parties.

The DRM is slow and ineffective.

On January 14, 2020, the UK, France and Germany — known as the E3 — triggered the DRM in what was at the time the strongest step taken to enforce the deal. That process ultimately went nowhere.

Another option would be a new UN Security Council resolution to restore sanctions on Iran after the “sunset” date of October 18.

However, this mechanism is impossible in practice, as the resolution could be vetoed by any permanent member of the Security Council — such as China or Russia — who may be sympathetic to Iran and interested in escalating their arms trade with the Islamic Republic.

As the DRM has proven ineffective and a new Security Council resolution is off the table, to prevent expansion of Iran’s nuclear programme after the sunset, the best tool we have is the “snapback” provision of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA.

As I outline in my report Why is the UK still party to the Iran Nuclear Deal? Practical Applications for the Future of the JCPOA, released with the Henry Jackson Society, snapback allows all previous restrictions on Iran from various resolutions — previously removed in exchange for Iran’s limitation and cessation of certain nuclear activities — to snap back into place.

Crucially, snapback allows any state party to the agreement that deems Iran’s violations to be “significant” to rapidly reinstate the sanctions without consensus from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Snapback then automatically occurs within 30 days of being invoked. If snapback is not employed by October 18, the limitations and sanctions on Iran will be completely removed as per the sunset clause.

The British government knows that the clock is ticking and Transition Day is fast approaching.

In recent weeks the UK has announced a compromise plan, together with its E3 partners, to incorporate the “sunset” sanctions into domestic law instead. This initiative is an awkward compromise and a weak response compared to the far stronger leverage snapback offers.

Snapback is a powerful threat. It gives Britain on its own the power to reimpose in full the harsh sanctions from which Iran previously sought refuge — and it cannot be blocked by Russia or China.

It avoids the challenges of coordinating domestic sanctions efforts, or of using the slow, toothless DRM.

If snapback were invoked it would obliterate the deal. While recognising Iran’s many substantial and consistent violations, none of the other state parties has yet pulled this powerful trigger which would end the JCPOA.

But at this point leaders must see the merits of this option while many already wonder if the price of destroying the JCPOA is worth it.

The answer is undoubtedly yes.

While obliterating the JCPOA, snapback would restore a sense of justice and equilibrium, allowing the UK and its allies to know where they stand, and to reassert that the international rules-based system requires those who sign agreements to obey them or face consequences.

In his leadership race last year, prime minister Rishi Sunak said we need a new, strengthened deal and much tougher sanctions or the JCPOA would be at a “dead end”.

For the sake of UK national security we must acknowledge that we need to stand ready to trigger the snapback provision and set an example for our international allies.

Elizabeth Samson is an Associate Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a former Visiting Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC.

September 28, 2023 13:04

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