Arms embargo in Iran: showdown in sight at the UN over an American text

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Diplomats expect the UN Security Council to sharply reject a US resolution next week to extend an embargo on arms sales to Iran, which should pave the way for a long showdown with repercussions for the Iran nuclear deal.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Wednesday that his country would present this text despite strong opposition from Russia and China.

But UN diplomats say opposition to the current version of the resolution is so strong that Washington is unlikely to secure the nine votes needed to force Moscow and Beijing to veto.

“The resolution takes a hard-line stance on Iran,” a diplomat told AFP.

Another said the plan “goes beyond the current provisions” of the embargo on conventional arms sales to Iran, which expires on October 18.

This embargo expires under the terms of the resolution that blessed the international Iranian nuclear agreement, signed in July 2015 and officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Under the terms of the agreement, negotiated by Barack Obama, then President of the United States, Iran agreed to reduce its nuclear activities in exchange in particular for easing sanctions.

President Donald Trump withdrew his country from the deal in May 2018 and imposed unilateral sanctions on Iran as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign.

Tehran has since taken limited but increasing steps to move away from its commitments to the deal, while calling for sanctions relief.

The European allies of the United States who, alongside Russia and China, signed the agreement with Iran, have said they are in favor of an extension of the embargo, but their priority is to preserve the JCPOA.

The American text, which AFP was able to consult, calls for an unlimited extension of the embargo.

Diplomats fear the resolution threatens the nuclear deal. For Iran, an extension of the embargo would mean the end of the agreement.

“We should stay focused on preserving the JCPOA,” a third diplomat told AFP.

“This is the only way to provide assurances on the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. No credible alternative to this tool has been proposed since the American withdrawal, ”he added.

Experts say the rift between the United States and its allies threatens to create a climate of discontent in the Security Council until the October 18 deadline.

Torpedo the deal?

“It’s like a car accident that everyone would know is going to happen,” said New York-based UN specialist Richard Gowan, describing the US text as a “poison pill”.

Observers suggest that European Council countries could rally to a short-term extension of the embargo if it helps preserve the nuclear deal.

Or members could come up with their own text, but a consensus looks difficult with China and Russia.

Washington has threatened to make every effort to reinstate UN sanctions if the embargo is not extended, using a controversial mechanism called “snapback”.

Mike Pompeo has advanced an argument that has been contested, that the United States is still “participants” in the nuclear deal, and that it can therefore force a return of sanctions if it finds violations of Iranian commitments.

He cited Iran’s support for Houthi rebels in Yemen as an example, and worried about signs that China would already prepare to sell arms to Iran once the embargo expires.

European allies are skeptical of a reinstatement of sanctions as envisioned by Washington, and warn that it could undermine the legitimacy of the Security Council.

Kelly Craft, the US ambassador to the UN, told reporters Thursday that Washington’s first target was extension, but the US was prepared to use “whatever tools it has at its disposal.”

An attempt to use the “snapback” seems “very likely”, according to Mr. Gowan of the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank.

“At worst, it could torpedo the nuclear deal once and for all, which could be what Pompeo wants,” he said.

“It could turn into political mess in the Security Council, similar to the one over Iraq in 2003,” he adds.

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