In business transactions and international diplomacy alike, there could be constant variables and dependent variables. Constant variable is where the value cannot be changed once it has been assigned a value. But it becomes a dependent variable if it is susceptible or open to the effect of an associated factor or phenomenon. Then, there is also a third independent variable, which is a factor or phenomenon whose value is given or set already that can cause or influence a dependent variable.
A big question for international security has arisen: What type of variable is at work as the US prepares a legal argument that it still remains a “participant” in the 2015 Iran nuclear accord known as JCPOA?
Both New York Times and Fox News, which reported on this development on Sunday maintained that the Trump administration’s ploy to reenter the JCPOA is riveted on a strategy to invoke the “snapback” clause, which would restore the comprehensive pre-2015 UN sanctions on Iran.
Much depends on the UN Security Council members. What if they come up with a dependent / independent variable that accedes to the US status as “participant”, provided Washington agrees to ‘X’, ‘Y’, ‘C’ factor or phenomenon? Tradeoffs are more the rule than the exception in the UN SC; constant variable is a rare occurrence at the horseshoe table.
A Reuters report today, in fact, highlights that the Trump administration can expect “a tough, messy battle if it uses a threat to trigger a return of all United Nations sanctions on Iran as leverage to get the 15-member Security Council to extend and strengthen an arms embargo on Tehran.”
The report quoted a European diplomat: “It’s very difficult to present yourself as a compliance watcher of a resolution you decided to pull out of. Either you’re in or either you’re out.” This is the crux of the matter.
Tehran has already notified the European Union that any move to re-impose UN sanctions through the back door will trigger a vehement reaction — including, possibly, Iran exiting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The EU and the three European signatories of the JCPOA (UK, France and Germany) are extremely wary of the JCPOA being abandoned. Their sincerity of purpose is self-evident in the IMPEX mechanism (which enables limited trade between European companies and Iran despite US sanctions.)
The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell recently expressed regret about the US’ opposition to the IMF lending money to Iran against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic. The German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas publicly shared Borrell’s view.
Having said that, it is an entirely different ball game if the US were to walk back as “participant” in the JCPOA as original signatory. If that happens, everything else becomes negotiable — including fresh talks to renegotiate the terms of JCPOA. Tehran has laid down Washington’s return to the JCPOA as the sole pre-condition for talks.
Today, Radio Farda, the Persian service of the US government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty beamed to Iran, has carried a report US May Be Prepared To Rethink Stance On Sanctions, Nuclear Accord with Tehran which speculates precisely that on the “pretext” of extending the arms embargo against Iran, Washington could be principally “thinking of returning to the nuclear accord” and engaging with Iran in talks.
Radio Farda quoted a “usually well-informed Iran analyst in Scotland” to this effect. The report hinted that back channels are at work. Possibly, some kite-flying is going on here.
Indeed, Iranian media had reported recently that President Hassan Rouhani told a cabinet meeting in Tehran on March 25 that the “leader of a non-permanent member of the Security Council” had told him about the UN Security Council currently weighing plans for the removal of all sanctions against Iran.
Rouhani was quoted as saying at the cabinet meeting, “We are also trying to have our blocked money unfrozen.” (Rouhani was probably referring to a conversation with Kais Saied, President of Tunisia, which is a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.)
Iran hasn’t reacted to the New York Times and Fox News reports. Meanwhile, in what could well be a related development, Rouhani had a phone conversation on April 21 with the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani where the sanctions issue figured.
Interestingly, an Iranian Foreign Ministry statement later verbatim quoted from the conversation. Rouhani told Sheikh Tamim:
“The US pressure and sanctions against Iran are not only a violation of international law, but also they are violating human principles by intensifying their behaviour in these difficult circumstances, including preventing the International Monetary Fund from lending to Iran”.
“We believe that in this special situation, all countries in the world must stand together to fight coronavirus and clearly state their positions against the hostile actions of the United States”.
“Unfortunately, they are still reluctant to end their inhumane acts, but we have no doubt that sooner or later they will have to change course.”
The Emir responded, “Today, the world is in a special situation and we believe that in this situation, the United States must lift its sanctions and all countries must move in line with the new conditions.”
Subsequently, there has also been a conversation between the two foreign ministers. Now, Qatar, which hosts the US Central Command Hqs, is a close ally of the US. Sheikh Tamim and Trump have a warm relationship.
During the emir’s visit to the White House last July, Trump remarked, “Tamim, you’ve been a friend of mine for a long time, before I did this presidential thing, and we feel very comfortable with each other.” No doubt, if ever Trump needed a back channel with the Iranian leadership, he wouldn’t need to look beyond Sheikh Tamim. (Significantly, Sheikh Tamim made a rare visit to Tehran in January this year.)
Curiously, the day after Sheikh Tamim spoke to Rouhani, he also held a phone conversation with Trump. The White House readout said, “The president and the (emir) discussed the coronavirus response… The president encouraged the emir to take steps toward resolving the Gulf rift in order to work together to defeat the virus, minimise its economic impact and focus on critical regional issues.”
The bottom line is that the UN arms embargo is not really a big ticket item but the sanctions is. Even if the ban gets lifted in October, it is only for small arms, whereas transfer of advanced technology such as missiles will have to wait another 3 years. Iran is largely self-reliant in defence. And its asymmetric capability to generate deterrence against US aggression is legion.
The Trump administration realises that its sanctions policy has failed. The murder of the charismatic Iranian general Qassem Soleimani only hardened Tehran’s resolve to press ahead with the “axis of resistance”. And the world opinion militates against continued US sanctions against Iran.
In this backdrop, the forthcoming summit of the founding members of the UN may address the issue of sanctions. From such a perspective, the Trump administration’s seemingly belligerent move to return as “participant” in the JCPOA may turn out to be a dependent variable open to influence from one or more independent variables.