A confrontation is heating up between Tehran and Washington over the possible extension of a five-year arms embargo against Iran that is due to expire in four months.
The United States wants to extend the ban -- which was part of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers -- indefinitely through a UN Security Council resolution that Tehran is vehemently against.
Washington is facing expected resistance from Russia and China, which as permanent UN Security Council members have the power of veto, while European allies have suggested they’re likely to come up with their own compromise resolution amid concerns over the complete collapse of the nuclear accord signed five years ago.
The U.S. withdrew from that deal -- which limited Tehran’s sensitive nuclear work in exchange for relief from sanctions -- in May 2018 and reimposed harsh measures that have crippled Iran’s economy.
Tehran has reacted by gradually reducing its commitments to the deal curbing its nuclear program and has exceeded prescribed limits on enriched uranium.
The clash between the two sides was on display at a June 30 virtual United Nations Security Council meeting addressed by both U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Pompeo, who left the meeting before Zarif spoke, warned that lifting the ban on the arms embargo would turn the Islamic republic into a “rogue weapons' dealer” that would supply arms to conflicts “from Venezuela to Syria [and] to the far reaches of Afghanistan.”
“Iran will hold a sword of Damocles over the economic stability of the Middle East, endangering nations like Russia and China that rely on stable energy prices,” Pompeo said while calling Iran “the world’s most heinous terrorist regime.”
Zarif began and ended his video statement by quoting former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who was overthrown in a 1953 CIA-orchestrated coup.
Accusing the United States of undermining “global peace and security,” Zarif said the removal of the arms embargo in October is “an inseparable part” of the nuclear deal.
The end of the embargo would allow Iran to buy conventional weapons, potentially from Russia and China, who have consistently supported Tehran politically, financially, and militarily.
Washington has argued that while the ban has not prevented all weapon smuggling by Tehran, including to Yemen’s Huthi rebels, it has limited such behavior by Iran.
Nearly all UN ambassadors speaking at the June 30 meeting expressed support for the nuclear accord while criticizing Iran for violating the terms of the deal and for its missile activities.
Yet, European countries suggested that they’re not likely to support new restrictions on Iran as sought by the United States.
French Ambassador to the UN Nicolas de la Riviere said his country along with Germany and Britain share the concern over the implications of the expiration of the arms embargo while adding that the three countries oppose unilateral proposals leading to the return of sanctions.
“They would only deepen divisions in the Security Council and beyond and would not be likely to improve the situation on the ground of nuclear nonproliferation,” said de la Riviere.
Some analysts said the Security Council meeting highlighted U.S. isolation in its attempt to extend the arms ban.
Oliver Meier, a senior researcher at the Berlin office of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy, told RFE/RL that the next course of action by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump is difficult to predict.
“But it seems clear from yesterday’s discussions that Europeans have found their voice on the JCPOA and are willing to prevent a misuse of UN procedures by the Trump administration,” he added, referring to the 2015 nuclear deal by its abbreviated name.
Opponents of the nuclear deal suggested Washington was likely to resort to the so-called snapback of all UN sanctions against Iran, which the United States has threatened to use under a process outlined in the nuclear deal.
“Thereby making unilateral snapback inevitable; if no fix [for an extension of the weapons ban], it will be nix,” Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense Of Democracies (FDD) and a staunch critic of the nuclear accord, tweeted on June 30.
Washington has argued that it has the right to trigger the snapback process under UN Resolution 2231 that enshrined the nuclear deal.
“If American diplomacy is frustrated by a veto, however, the U.S. retains the right to renew the arms embargo by other means,” Brian Hook, U.S. special representative for Iran, wrote in The Wall Street Journal in May.
“Security Council Resolution 2231 (from 2015) lifted most UN sanctions but also created a legal mechanism for exclusive use by certain nations to snap sanctions back. The arms embargo is one of these sanctions,” Hook added.
The EU countries party to the accord have warned that they would not support such a decision, which could kill the nuclear deal.
“Triggering snapback in defiance of the shared calls of other council members to relent would, however, damage the legitimacy of the UNSC. Such a course of action would be a clear indication that the Trump administration’s approach is not about limiting arms transfers on Iran but about destroying the JCPOA for good,” Meier said.
Speaking on June 30, Pompeo said the “overwhelming preference” for the United States was to work with the Security Council to extend the arms ban. He did not say whether Washington was open to a compromise solution, which Western media have reported European countries are seeking.
The Wall Street Journal reported last month, quoting diplomats, that EU countries are pursuing a compromise resolution to constrain the arms trade with Iran to satisfy Washington while preventing a veto by Russia and China.
For its part, Iran has warned that it would leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) if its nuclear file was referred to the UN Security Council. The landmark treaty, which came into force in 1970, prevents the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology.