U.N. Ignores U.S. Calls for a “Snap Back” of Sanctions on Iran

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2020, pp. 30, 37

United Nations Report

By Ian Williams

IN AUGUST, the U.S. sent a letter to the U.N. claiming to trigger the “snap back” of sanctions on Iran envisaged in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). You can hear a pin drop in the empty halls of the U.N. now, but even so no one noticed “snap,” since the other members of the Security Council—Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France and Germany—denied that the United States had standing to trigger the snap back mechanism because it had abrogated the JCPOA two years before.

People clamoring for “snap back” on Iran in the U.N. are reminiscent of someone who goes to a court in the wilds of Texas and proves with impeccable maps and diagrams that income tax is unconstitutional and in any case Texas is not part of the U.S., who is then bewildered when the federal marshal hauls him way to a federal prison.

A few years ago, the U.S. was able to get away with such fine-print diplomacy, leaning on a casuist trail of contingent clauses, to achieve its ends as it did over Iraq. However, when it comes to the snap back clause, it is a trail too thin. Only in the mental universe of Israeli and Republican politicians like Vice President Mike Pence would the world respond to an American call to enforce an agreement that the U.S. had unilaterally abrogated!

The assertions from Pence and Kelly Craft, the new socialite U.S. ambassador to the U.N., that all the U.S. had to do was snap its fingers and Iran would again be embroiled in sanctions, demonstrates not just how, but why, the U.S. is losing its global predominance. When he tried, Pence was met with impatient “what planet is he on” reactions from other U.N. members. In some ways, it was even more humiliating that the only support he could get in the Security Council was from the Dominican Republic, whose newly elected government seems to have remembered it was one of the U.S.’ original banana republics.

The battle was not exactly won by the Iranians, rather was lost by the U.S. The ayatollahs, along with their allies Hezbollah, are not exactly the poster boys of other U.N. members. Insofar as they win, it is rather a reaction to the relentless monomania of Israel and the U.S. who obsessively bring up Iran in issue after issue.

One should not discount this tactic, since sheer repetition, even if annoying, has a cumulative effect as shown by Israel’s success with the Palestinians over the years. If Israel makes it the U.N. equivalent of a federal case every time a settler stubs his toe, it does drown out the real murders, arrests and beatings by the IDF, not least since the Palestinians and their allies are not equipped to counter Israeli hasbara activities.

The corrosive effect of complaints about the mere possibility of Iranian nuclear weaponry outweigh the lack of mention or concern about the actual weapons possessed by India, Pakistan, North Korea and India. At one time Egypt would raise the issue of Israeli nukes, but only in a half-hearted way to avoid cutting off the cash flow from Washington that was mandated by AIPAC as part of the “peace process.”

Certainly, no U.N. official looking for promotion would raise the nuclear issue gratuitously, and not many countries had a dog in the fight. But in a stunning piece of hypocrisy, India, a nuclear power and non-signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, sitting on the International Atomic Energy Authority had voted for referring Iran to the Security Council in the first place for alleged nuclear breaches.

But again, there is the sound of silence. Gilad Erdan, the new Israeli representative to the U.N., hit the mud with his feet splashing and denounced the U.N.’s failure to enforce the U.S.’ unilateral call for the snap back, as a blow to the organization’s authority. Unlike, of course, annexing East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and threatening to annex the West Bank, let alone building settlements in illegally occupied territory and shooting down Palestinians in the thousands.

Erdan replaces the irreplaceable Danny Danon, who has finally quit his post at the U.N., and, after five high profile years in New York, has presumably amassed a file of right-wing donors who will support him when he moves back to far-right domestic politics in Israel; his rebarbative attacks on the U.N., the Palestinians and, of course, Iran—doubtless helped his resumé.

Sadly, he has indeed been highly effective in his position, at times treating the U.N. itself almost as occupied territory, staging events celebrating Israel there and inviting significant groups of local supporters. Compared with some of his predecessors, who treated the U.N. and its member envoys with disdain, he has wooed countries that he assessed did not have a dog in the fight. Trips to Israel helped, of course, as did his lobbying to place Israeli officials in key positions in the U.N.

Erdan is unlikely to change direction. He began in politics by opposing the Oslo accords but not on the sound grounds espoused by the much-vindicated Prof. Edward Said. He was a political adviser to the late unlamented Ariel Sharon and later to Binyamin Netanyahu. He will doubtless find the new U.S. ambassador to the U.N. even more pliable than her predecessors.

Will this unprecedented Security Council dissidence with the U.S. translate into other Middle East issues? One fears not. The motives of the other four permanent members are mixed. There is genuine exasperation that Washington expects them to fall for such silly legal prestidigitation but also a shared desire to stop proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially to the ayatollahs. They saw the JCPOA as the best way to achieve that, and then it was cast aside like a broken toy by the infantile crowd in Washington. It is also true that Russia and China see Iran as a potential military customer impelled by Israeli and U.S. threats, but U.S. diplomatic ineptitude is reason enough.

For now, the imbroglio over Iran is yet another diversion from creative thinking and yet another reason for the U.N. and its members to ignore its responsibilities from Syria and Palestine to Yemen and the Sahel.

The U.S. might have gone too far this time. For years, it has kept the U.N. on diminished life support and occasionally resurrected it when needed. However, we really can’t be sure it will be revived in any viable form in the future, which is not a good thing for the dispossessed of the world.

U.N. correspondent Ian Williams is the author of UNtold: the Real Story of the United Nations in Peace and War (available from Middle East Books and More).





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1983, Lebanon, U.S. Embassy bombed, 63 killed. Months later, Marine Barracks bombed, 241 killed.

1987, Cassie accepts a job teaching Shakespeare at a private academy near Princeton, to forget memories of her late husband killed at the barracks.

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