The Trump administration’s monthslong push to uphold a global ban on weapons sales to Iran is heading into a high-stakes showdown at the U.N. Security Council, where Russia and China are poised to block a U.S.-backed resolution to extend the ban this week.
With the administration struggling to navigate the matter after last week’s abrupt exit of its top diplomat on Iran, Brian Hook, analysts say Moscow and Beijing are preparing to back Washington into a corner during a crucial Security Council vote that could be held as soon as Wednesday.
At issue is a long-standing United Nations arms embargo against Iran that is set to expire in October under terms of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The administration warns that the situation would be disastrous for the Middle East and for U.S. national security because it would give Tehran sudden access to a buffet of Chinese- and Russian-made weaponry previously acquirable only through nefarious channels.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned in recent days that if the administration’s U.N. resolution to keep the embargo in place fails, then the White House will try to reinstitute global economic sanctions lifted as part of the Obama-era nuclear deal — even though President Trump technically withdrew the U.S. from the pact two years ago.
It’s a complex predicament, say national security experts, who note that while the administration’s position has support from some key regional powers, it is struggling to gain legal and political footing inside the Security Council and is causing strain with European allies still bent on trying to salvage what is left of the 2015 accord.
With that as a backdrop, Russia and China — both of which helped negotiate the nuclear deal — are seeking to score a major victory by blocking the arms embargo extension resolution. “They have kind of a commercialist, mercantilist view,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “There is an axis between Russia, China and Iran, but those countries — Russia and China — have used Iran instrumentally in their strategic competition with America.
“Iran, for these states,” he said, “has always been a card to expend against America.”
In order to pass, the embargo resolution needs at least nine votes and must avoid a veto by one of the five permanent members of the council, which includes Russia and China. Both members strongly oppose an extension. Chinese diplomats told Reuters this week that prolonging the embargo “will undermine efforts to preserve” the fragile nuclear deal.
Administration officials, anticipating a defeat, have argued that a failure to extend the embargo would represent a grave failure and a stain on the U.N. legacy. They have cast China, Russia and Iran under the same umbrella as bad actors on the global stage.
“It is worth remembering … that because authoritarianism is still alive in Beijing, in Moscow and in Tehran, there remains work to do,” Mr. Pompeo said Tuesday during a visit to the “Thank You, America” monument in the Czech city of Pilsen.
The administration also has portrayed Russian and Chinese motivations as purely selfish. Both countries could be looking at a major financial windfall if they are able to sell weapons directly to Tehran.
With the battle lines clearly drawn, analysts say, the most interesting and consequential aspect of the U.N. standoff will be the behavior of Britain, Germany and France. Should they offer a full-throated backing of the administration’s resolution, it would indicate that the U.S. still has influential allies in its effort to exert economic pressure on Iran.
“That’s the side whose heads and hearts have been coveted by both Tehran and Washington,” Mr. Taleblu said of the European powers. “The main beneficiary of this trans-Atlantic gap is not just Iran but Russia and China. Seeing how they treat the U.S. arguments, seeing how they treat the resolution and seeing what kind of Band-Aid solution they come up with is going to matter as much as any Russian or Chinese veto.”
Mr. Trump spoke by telephone over the weekend with French President Emmanuel Macron. A White House readout of their call said the two men discussed “the importance of extending the U.N. arms embargo on Iran.”
Analysts say the president’s personal conversations with European leaders about the looming U.N. vote underscores how seriously the White House is taking the issue.
There has also been a concerted multilateral effort in recent days to highlight the merits of the arms embargo. The six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, a Middle East organization of mainly Arab monarchies that view Iran as a threat, came out strongly this week in favor of U.S. efforts to keep the embargo in place. The council argued that Tehran has proved to be a regional troublemaker that would become even more dangerous with greater access to conventional arms that are presently banned by the embargo.
Iranian dissident groups have made similar arguments and have urged the Trump administration to do all it can to preserve the embargo.
“We have always stated and repeat once again that this regime must not be allowed to acquire even a single bullet,” Maryam Rajavi, who heads the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran, told The Washington Times in an interview last month.
Others argue that the administration has fumbled on Iran policy overall. They say efforts to alter Obama-era terms of the nuclear deal with Tehran, including the looming expiration of the arms embargo, are unlikely to succeed.
Some analysts say the administration’s threat to reimpose sweeping global economic sanctions against Iran will prove far more complicated than the White House is willing to acknowledge and will hinge on complex legal questions about how much authority, if any, Washington retains as part of the pact, which is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
“After explicitly claiming that the U.S. has left the JCPOA, Pompeo now wants to have it both ways: The U.S. has left the JCPOA, but when it comes to triggering its self-destruction mechanism, it still wants to have a say,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
“Few will buy Pompeo’s incoherent logic,” he said. “The move, however, will cause an existential crisis at the [United Nations], as sanctions may be reimposed but only the U.S. will see them as legitimate. Other permanent members of the council, including the Europeans, may ignore them, leaving the authority of the council severely damaged.”
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