27.08.2020 Author: James ONeill

UN Security Council Vote on Iran Sanctions Heralds a New Phase in International Relations


The isolation of the United States from the rest of the world community becomes increasingly obvious by the day. The most recent example was the vote in the United Nations Security Council against a United States motion to extend the sanctions on Iran for its alleged nuclear weapons program. Of the 15 members of the Security Council, only the United States and the Dominican Republic voted in favour of extending the sanctions. Russia and China both voted against. Perhaps more significantly, the other 11 member States of the Security Council abstained, including normally active supporters of the United States; the United Kingdom and France.

The United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made it clear that the United States would continue its policy of sanctions on Iran, regardless of the Security Council vote. It was the clearest possible indication that the United States takes a unilateral view of international law: either agree with us or we will go ahead and do what we want anyway!

As if the United Nations Security Council vote were not clear enough, the three most important European powers, United Kingdom, France and Germany, issued a joint statement on 20 August 2020 clearly stating their opposition to the United States’ attitude. The joint statement was remarkable for its blunt rejection of the United States’ attitude and behaviour.

The United States, the statement said, ceased to be a participant in the JCPOA following their withdrawal from the deal on 8th of May 2018. The trio wrote that they “cannot therefore support this action which is incompatible with our current efforts to support the JCPOA.”

The trio went on to say that they “are committed to preserving the processes and institutions which constitute the foundation of multilateralism. We remain guided by the objective of upholding the authority and integrity of the United Nations Security Council.”

This is an almost unprecedented rejection of United States unilateralism in modern times. Even the New York Times, normally a leading cheerleader of US unilateralism condemned (20/8/20) the United States government’s actions. They quoted US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemning the stance taken by the British, French and German governments, saying that those countries “chose to side with the ayatollahs.”

Pompeo has been one of the leading voices for United States unilateralism and the alacrity with which he turned on three normally supportive US allies, and in vituperative terms, is a measure of how far the United States has moved outside any pretence of multilateralism. Pompeo is a strong supporter of Israel, Iran’s strongest and most vociferous opponent in the region.

The fact that Israel is an undeclared nuclear power and refuses to participate in any nuclear non-proliferation treaties, or even officially acknowledge its nuclear status, is never the subject of criticism or adverse comment by any United States administration. The current regime is no exception.

The near unanimous view of the United Nations Security Council will not of course stop the United States from acting unilaterally and extending its sanctions against the Iranian government. Trump’s vague words about a new “deal” with Iran can be safely disregarded. United States antipathy to Iran goes back at least to the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mossadeq in 1953.

A briefly warmer period of relations existed under the Shah’s regime until he in turn was ejected in the Islamic revolution of 1979. United States-Iran relations have been from poor to abysmal ever since. There is absolutely no reason to have any belief that Trump is sincere in his vague wishes for a “new deal”, or indeed that the deeply entrenched commitment to Israel at nearly all levels of the US power elite would even permit any such rapprochement.

Quite apart from its overwhelming commitment to Israel, United States support, in all forms, for the terrorist group Mujahedin al Kalk in its actions against the Islamic Republic make a mockery of any professed United States belief in normalising relations in the foreseeable future.

The United States claims to have a legal basis for its “snap back” against Iran for the latter’s alleged breaches of the 2015 JCPOA. Even that argument is profoundly flawed. The United States unilaterally abandoned the JCP0A in May 2018. The United Nations resolution passed in the light of the JCPOA approval of the Iranian deal was therefore also abandoned by the United States in May 2018. They are, as a matter of law, no longer parties to the deal.

Their ability to purport to take actions in respect of the deal is therefore a nullity. It comes down to the legal principle of estoppel, which is a term meaning that there is a bar imposed on conduct resulting from one’s own actions adverse to the original agreement. In this case, the United States as noted unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA. It therefore as a matter of law is precluded from actions purporting to rely on a membership that no longer exists.

It is worth noting this point because the United States is always ready to purportedly rely on legal principles to justify its actions. As this illustration makes clear, such reliance is highly selective.

This legal reality has already been pointed out to the Trump administration by the European Union’s Josep Borrell, the man responsible for coordinating the joint committee charged with the responsibility of supervising the original nuclear agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany. Mr Borrrell stated:

“As I have repeatedly recalled, the United States unilaterally ceased participation in the JCPOA by Presidential memorandum on 8 May 2018 and has subsequently not participated in any JCPOA related activities. It cannot, therefore, be considered to be a JCPOA participant State for the purposes of possible sanctions snap back foreseen by the resolution”.

The United States is not so stupid as to not be aware of the legal realities. To understand what they have done and why becomes the more important question. The answer to that question lies in the long history briefly outlined above. The United States is not interested in a resolution of the conflict. It is interested only in a war with Iran and their attempt at killing off the JCPOA is a thinly disguised attempt to provoke Iran into a reaction that can be used to justify an attack.

A lot has changed since the 2015 signing of the JCPOA, not least the radically improved and extended relationships of Iran with both Russia and China. That in turn is part of a radically changing geopolitical landscape throughout Eurasia. Strive as it might, the United States cannot prevent that development and US attempts to disrupt and constrain that development are doomed to fail. The real question will be: does the United States recognise that reality and adapt accordingly, or will it persist in its increasingly dangerous and isolated unilateralism. Unfortunately, the latter seems the more likely.

James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.