US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attends a United Nations Security Council meeting on 20 August 2019 at the United Nations in New York. Johannes Eisele/AFP
Q&A / Multilateral Diplomacy 10 minutes

Behind the Snapback Debate at the UN

In mid-August, Washington notified the UN Security Council that it was launching a 30-day process to “snap back” UN sanctions against Iran. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Richard Gowan, Ashish Pradhan and Naysan Rafati explain what this step implies for the 2015 nuclear agreement.

What is snapback?

In July 2015, the UN Security Council unanimously endorsed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by passing Resolution 2231. According to the resolution’s Article 11, a “participant state” in the nuclear deal can, on the basis of “significant non-performance” by one of the agreement's other parties, initiate the restoration (or “snapback”) of six Security Council resolutions enacted against Iran between 2006 and 2010 that were terminated under 2231. Snapback would nullify an approaching sunset on restrictions on Iranian arms purchases and exports; strengthen strictures on Iran’s ballistic missile activity; and require Iran to suspend nuclear enrichment, among other measures. Under the terms of Resolution 2231, if the council has not passed a new resolution confirming the continuation of the sanctions terminations after 30 days, the sanctions immediately come back into force.

Didn’t the U.S. leave the JCPOA?

Yes, the U.S. withdrew from the deal in May 2018. But Washington’s contention is that regardless of its exit, it is named in Resolution 2231’s text as a JCPOA participant, thereby giving it standing to use the UN snapback mechanism. The deal’s other parties (France, Germany, the UK, Russia and China, together known as the P4+1, as well as Iran) disagree, reacting to the U.S. claim to be initiating the snapback process by asserting that the U.S. had essentially forfeited its right to do so when it left the nuclear agreement.

Why is this debate happening now?

Resolution 2231 stipulates that UN restrictions on countries selling conventional arms to Iran, or buying Iranian weaponry, are to be lifted on 18 October 2020, five years from the JCPOA’s adoption day. Prior to invoking snapback, the U.S. put forward a resolution proposing that the measures remain in place “until the Security Council decides otherwise” – in other words, an indefinite extension. That resolution failed on 14 August, garnering just one supporting vote from the Dominican Republic. China and Russia voted against the draft, while the remaining eleven members of the council abstained. Rebuffed in its effort to recast the arms restrictions, the U.S. proceeded, as it had previously warned it would, to attempt to initiate the snapback mechanism on 20 August. 

What has happened since the U.S. initiated the snapback process?

The other Security Council members resoundingly rejected Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s snapback trigger notification on 20 August, and since then the U.S. has experienced near-total isolation on the Council. A joint letter the same day from the JCPOA’s three European participants (France, Germany and the UK – known as the E3), saying the U.S. notification was not “effective”, dampened any momentum the Trump administration was hoping to create in favour of its manoeuvre. The E3’s rebuke instead empowered the vast majority of other Council members to also register their objections in writing, culminating in thirteen of the Council’s fifteen members outlining their refusal to recognise the U.S. claim to have standing. 

U.S. diplomats have since adopted a two-pronged approach at the UN. First, they have lobbied unsuccessfully for other members, including Indonesia and Niger – Security Council presidents in August and September, respectively – to table a resolution to continue the termination of UN sanctions as outlined in Resolution 2231, with the intent of vetoing that draft. While such a resolution is not necessary for snapback to be considered successful, some diplomats believed that Washington wanted to add a layer of procedural legitimacy to an otherwise thinly veiled attempt to put an end to the JCPOA. 

Secondly, U.S. diplomats have gone on the defensive in New York to avoid public isolation at the Council while also imposing costs on other members for declining to support snapback. In the days immediately following the snapback notification, the U.S. reportedly objected to the holding of several in-person Council meetings to avoid the possibility of a separate discussion aimed at giving the other members the floor to raise their concerns and outline their continued support for the JCPOA.

U.S. diplomats have warned other members that a crisis over Iran could lead to a broader deterioration of diplomacy in New York.

U.S. diplomats have warned other members that a crisis over Iran could lead to a broader deterioration of diplomacy in New York. On 31 August, the U.S. vetoed a resolution on counter-terrorism issues tabled by Indonesia in a move that other Council members interpreted as, at least in part, a reprimand of Jakarta for its failure to facilitate the snapback process as Council president. But other than that, Council business has carried on as normal to date.

What happens next?

The U.S. goal in initiating the snapback process – which it claims to be on track to achieving – is to restore all pre-JCPOA UN sanctions on 20 September. But given the divide between Washington’s view and other Council members’ assessment that the U.S. lacks standing to trigger the mechanism, there is likely to be a parallel claim put forward. The Trump administration, perhaps with the support of Middle Eastern allies, will contend that it has restored all UN restrictions on Iran’s activities – and insist that these are binding on all member states. U.S. officials will likely turn their attention toward enforcement, pressuring UN member states to recognise the reimposition of pre-JCPOA sanctions. “All countries are bound to enforce them”, contended Secretary Pompeo in a recent op-ed. “To do otherwise grossly undermines the Council’s authority and credibility, and could normalise selective enforcement of Security Council resolutions”. The vast majority of Council members, including the P4+1 parties to the nuclear deal, will maintain – possibly, again, in writing – that they do not consider these U.S. claims as valid and that sanctions have not been restored. Most Council members will thus consider that the terms of Resolution 2231 continue to define the state of play. These parties will ignore the contrary U.S. claim and decline to enforce sanctions.

Some diplomats in New York worry that President Donald Trump will use his speech to the assembly to threaten the UN with financial penalties

Both arguments are likely to be on display during the UN General Assembly next week. Some diplomats in New York worry that President Donald Trump will use his speech to the assembly to threaten the UN with financial penalties if the Council does not fall in line behind snapback, although most think such a threat would likely be bluster. The P4+1 leaders, who will be addressing the assembly in pre-recorded videos, may restate their commitment to the JCPOA, but they are likely to downplay the issue to avoid generating extra friction with Washington. 

What is the role of the UN Secretary-General and secretariat in this dispute?

There is no individual or entity in the UN system that can rule on whether the U.S. snapback gambit has or lacks merit (the International Court of Justice might, though there is little indication thus far of a Security Council resolution requesting it to deliver an opinion on the matter, which in any case could take months). For now, it is a political and diplomatic issue rather than a neat legal determination.

There is no individual or entity in the UN system that can rule on whether the U.S. snapback gambit has or lacks merit

The next phase of UN diplomacy will likely feature U.S. manoeuvring to reinstate the mechanisms for monitoring sanctions on Iran that were dismantled in 2015. If UN Secretary-General António Guterres believed snapback to be legitimate, for example, he could try to re-form the panel of international experts to monitor sanctions breaches which existed from 2010 to 2015. Although this move would be a technicality (UN sanctions regimes can have legal force regardless of the existence of panels to monitor them), it would send a signal to UN officials that they should take the U.S. position seriously.

Guterres has so far resisted calls to weigh in on the dispute and claimed that Council members “need to interpret their own resolution”, but he may find that it is hard to remain entirely neutral. Even if the Secretary-General takes no action at all, Council members opposed to the U.S. position will interpret this inaction as proof that Washington’s claim has no force. The Secretary-General is supposed to report on Resolution 2231’s implementation to the Security Council every six months and the next report is due in December, pushing him to take a stance on the implications of recent events.

With no clear resolution to the dispute likely in the short term, there will be confusion over points of detail arising from snapback.

Nonetheless, the Secretary-General has little to gain from adopting a firm position in this dispute. He would be best advised to do no more than tell Council members to resolve it among themselves. 

With no clear resolution to the dispute likely in the short term, there will be confusion over points of detail arising from snapback. One is the status of individuals and entities that were previously under UN sanctions but were de-listed following JCPOA implementation and adoption of Resolution 2231. The reintroduction of past sanctions resolutions could mean that these individuals and entities could once again be designated under a reinstated sanctions regime. The status of the procurement channel established by Resolution 2231 for the “transfer of items, materials, equipment, goods and technology required for Iran's nuclear activities under the Nuclear Deal” will also come into question, as the U.S. will argue that this arrangement should now be terminated. The concrete impact of either measure on Iran in the short term is unclear, and Security Council members and UN officials are likely to get bogged down in inconclusive debates on these technicalities.

What happens when the conventional arms embargo on Iran expires?

Having rejected the U.S. position, most Security Council members accept that the conventional arms embargo on Iran – which the U.S. tried to extend prior to calling for snapback – will end on 18 October. The E3 floated compromise options on the embargo, such as a one-year or six-month extension, but none was simultaneously acceptable to the U.S. and China or Russia, let alone Iran.

The restrictions check Iran’s ability to import or export a range of conventional weapons, including “battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large-calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems, as defined for the purpose of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms or related materiel”. During an August visit to Moscow, Iran’s defence minister predicted “a new chapter in defence cooperation” with Russia after the restrictions lapse, and U.S. intelligence assessments have pointed to jets and tanks as possible purchases. U.S. officials have told Western counterparts that they will impose bilateral penalties on Chinese and Russian companies that sell arms to Iran, although many of these firms are already under U.S. sanctions.

Iranian officials also claim that after the restrictions are lifted the country has “the capacity to export several billion dollars a year in military equipment”; media speculate that Iran could find buyers for its domestically produced missile and air defence systems, ground equipment, naval craft and drones. Nevertheless, after 18 October, Iran’s outgoing transfers would remain subject to other Security Council prohibitions, including those covering Yemen and Lebanon, and an EU embargo continues to be in effect at least through 2023. 

What does all this mean for the nuclear deal? 

The snapback debate is reflective of the divide that has emerged between the U.S. and P4+1 since the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA. Washington contends that pressure – unilateral where necessary, multilateral where possible – can coerce Iran into accepting its demands to not only revisit the terms of the nuclear agreement but concede on a wider range of issues. The P4+1 have differing views on Iranian policy, but even in cases where there are shared concerns with Washington (the Europeans, notably, are apprehensive about the expiration of arms restrictions) their priority remains to salvage the existing negotiated framework as a basis for broader discussions, even as Iran has breached its terms in response to the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign. 

The broad consensus that has emerged against the U.S. snapback attempt should mitigate against a harsh Iranian response on the nuclear front

The most recent quarterly report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) notes, for example, that Tehran continues to enrich uranium beyond the JCPOA’s 3.67 per cent ceiling and has accumulated an enriched uranium stockpile nearly ten times its 202.8kg limit. At the same time, the IAEA noted a drop in Iran’s heavy-water inventory, and Director General Raphael Grossi on 14 September told the agency’s board of governors that inspections had begun at two sites of concern where access had become a matter of tension (albeit separate from the JCPOA). 

The broad consensus that has emerged against the U.S. snapback attempt should mitigate against a harsh Iranian response on the nuclear front, as that might scupper continued efforts by all remaining parties to save the agreement (and isolate Tehran rather than Washington). Tehran regards its current breaches as a calibrated response to the erosion of the economic dividends it expected from the JCPOA. It wants sanctions relief, as provided for in the nuclear deal, in return for resuming full compliance. For its part, the Trump administration appears intent on pressing ahead with its “maximum pressure” approach.

Most diplomats and UN officials recognise that the outcome of November’s U.S. presidential election will decide the outcome of the snapback dispute.

How will the U.S. elections affect the dispute? 

Most diplomats and UN officials recognise that the outcome of November’s U.S. presidential election will decide the outcome of the snapback dispute. If President Trump wins a second term, he will have ample time and opportunity to kill off the JCPOA, and then hope that Iran will come back to negotiate a different deal (which he has said will be “a deal that’s great for Iran”). Conversely, his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, has proposed to rejoin the JCPOA, if Iran returns to compliance with the agreement, and then attempt to “strengthen and extend” its conditions. It is not clear precisely what steps a Biden administration would need to take at the UN to unwind the U.S. snapback drive retroactively and reaffirm its commitment to the JCPOA. But diplomats and UN officials in New York are unlikely to let the niceties of UN procedures get in the way of reconstructing the nuclear deal.


UN Director
Senior Advisor to the President
Senior Analyst, Iran

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