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UN Pompeo snapback sanctions Iran

Are Iran ‘Snapback’ Sanctions Legal?

Words: Gabriella Gricius
Pictures: Marcus Lenk

This week, US Secretary of State Pompeo dramatically announced that the US government will submit a complaint accusing Iran of significant non-compliance in the 2015 nuclear deal and trigger the sanctions “snapback” mechanism. What is a snapback mechanism? Under the Iran nuclear agreement, if any state involved in the legal agreement notifies the UN Security Council of significant violations by Iran, the original sanctions lifted in 2016 will be automatically reinstituted in 30 days unless the Security Council adopts another resolution to avert the snapback.


In 2015, Iran, China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States signed the Iran Nuclear Deal (i.e. the JCPOA — The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). This deal gave Iran relief from debilitating sanctions in exchange for limits on its nuclear activities as well as international inspections proving that there was no nuclear testing. However, in 2018, the US withdrew from the agreement and reinstituted economic sanctions with the aim of indefinitely halting all Iranian nuclear activities and the development of ballistic missiles. In response, Iran has retaliated by ignoring previous commitments such as the production of enriched uranium, which can be used both for reactor fuel as well as for nuclear warheads.

Given that the majority of states in the UN Security Council do not support the US’ legal right to trigger snapback sanctions, it is unlikely that they will take effect.

As part of his efforts at the UN, Pompeo has been attempting to extend the arms embargo against Iran for the past few years. However, these efforts have been in vain. On August 14, only one state — the Dominican Republic — supported the US effort. When this recent effort failed, Pompeo turned to the option of a snapback, saying in New York, “The United States will never allow the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism to freely buy and sell planes, tanks, missiles and other kinds of conventional weapons.”


The question of whether Pompeo had the legal right to call for snapback sanctions originates from the US decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal. The UK, France, and Germany have claimed that the US did not have that right. Both the Iranian and Russian UN representatives have also publicly stated that they do not believe in the legality of the US right.

In response, the US has argued that under UN Resolution 2231, the resolution that enshrined the deal, it has the legal right to trigger the snapback sanctions. This argument was addressed in the State Department’s legal brief — also stating that there is no language in the Resolution that excludes dropout nations from triggering sanctions. Further, Pompeo has claimed that Germany, France, and the UK have all expressed their private support for the US’ position.


Given that the majority of states in the UN Security Council do not support the US’ legal right to trigger snapback sanctions, it is unlikely that they will take effect. Larry Johnson, a former Assistant Secretary General for Legal Affairs at the UN has suggested that the Security Council could consider a vote on Iranian sanctions relief, scheduled in October, as procedural — making such a vote not subject to veto. However, the US has also made clear that once it sees sanctions return, it will actively enforce those sanctions. This begs the question: If the US legally believes that it has triggered a snapback mechanism, will it enforce sanctions even if other states do not believe the US has done so? The result could be a nuclear deal that the US considers null and void while other states believe the same deal to be alive and well.

Outside of the legal question, the US’ aggressive actions have triggered nuclear and ballistic missile testing in Iran. In the wake of the announcement of snapback sanctions, Iran unveiled two medium-range missiles. This does not bode well for the future of potential arms agreements or détente between the two countries. Time will tell whether other European states, which are more amenable to compromise and agreement, can postpone or do away with the snapback sanctions or come up with a new solution.

Gabriella Gricius is a PhD Student in Political Science at Colorado State University. She has a background in security studies and great power politics in Russia, the Former Soviet Union, and the Arctic. She’s worked at a number of different international institutions, think tanks, and universities across Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States and speaks English, German, Dutch, and Russian.

Gabriella Gricius

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