A leaked letter to the UN Security Council shows that the British government has rejected the US position on Iran’s nuclear and conventional weapons programs, is siding with France and Germany at the UN, and is risking a diplomatic confrontation with its closest ally.
The letter, dated August 20, notifies the head of the UN Security Council that the ‘E3’ (Britain, France, Germany) remain ‘committed to fully implementing UNSCR 2231 (2015), by which the JCPOA [the ‘Iran deal’] was endorsed in 2015’, and that the United States request for ‘snapback’ on sanctions on Iran has no legal validity: ‘Germany, France and the United Kingdom (‘the E3’) do not consider that the United States is a JCPOA participant State under UNSCR 2231 (2015) anymore and therefore do not consider that the United States’ notification is effective.’
Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA in May 2018, calling the ‘Iran deal’ flawed and the Iranian regime duplicitous. The E3 imply that the current impasse is Trump’s doing: ‘We have worked tirelessly to preserve the nuclear agreement despite the significant challenges caused by the US’ withdrawal.’
On August 20, the US triggered the ‘snapback’ of UN sanctions on Iran at the Security Council. Thirteen of the 15 permanent and non-permanent members of the Security Council rejected the US’s claim. This letter, dated the same day, contains the E3’s version of the argument that as the US has left the JCPOA, it cannot invoke any element of UNSCR 2231. The administration’s supporters counter that the UN resolution did not specify that if a participant left the JCPOA, it would no longer be able to invoice its dispute mechanism.
In their letter, the E3 also acknowledge ‘current issues arising from systemic Iranian noncompliance with its JCPOA commitments’ — noncompliance which the Trump administration cites as proof of Iran’s bad faith — but they reject sanctions in favor of ‘continued dialogue between all remaining JCPOA participants’.
This position aligns Britain and France with Russia and China among the permanent members of the Security Council. Boris Johnson is positioning Britain among the powers working to isolate the United States at the UN — while continuing to promise the British public a post-Brexit US-UK free trade agreement.
‘Iran is the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism, and can’t be allowed to buy and sell missiles, combat aircraft, artillery, tanks, and other weapons systems when the current arms embargo expires on October 18,’ Kelly Craft, the US ambassador to the UN, told me on Thursday afternoon. ‘That is why the US tried to extend the embargo. I’m confident our British friends agree with that position — which is why the UK’s abstention in the Security Council vote to extend the arms embargo was so disappointing.’
It is rumored in London that Johnson and his team are rapidly losing faith in Trump’s offer of a US-UK free trade deal — and see a better opportunity in multilateral agreements with a future Biden administration, should Trump lose in November. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office appears to have a similar gamble in mind.
When I interviewed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on August 19, he expressed ‘regret’ that Britain was siding with France and Germany against the US, and warned that after the expiry of the conventional arms embargo on Iran in October, the Iranian regime will be able to buy advanced weaponry such as ‘Chinese tanks’ and ‘Russian air defense systems’: ‘We need nations to step up and do the right thing, whether that’s the United Kingdom or the French, the Germans, or others.’
Pompeo remained resolute on Thursday. ‘If any member of the UN Security Council introduces a resolution to continue sanctions relief, the US will oppose it,’ Pompeo tweeted on Thursday. ‘If no resolution is introduced, the sanctions on Iran will still return on September 20. That’s how UNSCR 2231 works.’
Amb. Craft was similarly blunt: ‘Now the UK has joined France and Germany in saying that the clear text of Resolution 2231 doesn’t mean what it says, so the US cannot reimpose sanctions on Iran. That’s turning Security Council texts into Alice in Wonderland debates about the plain meaning of words. We have the right to snap back sanctions and we are going to do it.’
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London declined to comment.