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Allies dismiss US announcement reimposing UN sanctions on Iran

Iran denounces 'reckless' US as Trump administration threatens consequences for violators
An anti-US mural on a Tehran building on 20 September 2020, when Washington unilaterally declared that UN sanctions against the Islamic republic were back in force (AFP)

The US has defied criticism from allies to announce the reimposition of sanctions against Iran, promising swift punishment to anyone who tried to violate them.

Saturday's announcement of the so-called "snapback" on sanctions, which was announced last month, also drew a sharp rebuke from Tehran, which called on the rest of the world to unite against US "reckless actions".

"Today, the United States welcomes the return of virtually all previously terminated UN sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

He said the measures were back in effect from 8pm Washington time.

The Trump administration also promised to "impose consequences" on any UN member state which did not comply with the measures.

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The sanctions in question were lifted in 2015 when Iran signed on to an international agreement not to seek to build nuclear weapons.

But President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the landmark accord in 2018, saying the deal, negotiated by his predecessor Barack Obama, was insufficient. He then renewed and even strengthened Washington's own sanctions.

At the moment, the US is insisting it is still a participant in the agreement that it withdrew from, but only so it can activate the snapback option, which it announced on 20 August.

Virtually every other member of the Security Council disputes Washington's ability to execute this legal pirouette, and the council has not taken the measure any further.

On Sunday, two permanent council members - France and the UK - issued a joint statement, along with non-permanent member Germany, saying that Pompeo's "purported notification" was "incapable of having any legal effect".

Russia's foreign ministry also said in a statement that Washington's statements lacked legal authority.

"The illegitimate initiatives and actions of the United States by definition cannot have international legal consequences for other countries," it said.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told a news conference in Tehran: "We expect the international community and all the countries in the world to stand against these reckless actions by the regime in the White House and speak in one voice."

Consequences for violators

Pompeo had promised in his announcement that measures would be announced in the coming days against "violators" of the sanctions.

"If UN member states fail to fulfil their obligations to implement these sanctions, the United States is prepared to use our domestic authorities to impose consequences for those failures and ensure that Iran does not reap the benefits of UN-prohibited activity," he stated.

'It's very painful to see how a great country humiliates itself like this, opposes in its obstinate delirium other members of UN Security Council'

- Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia's deputy ambassador to the UN

With 45 days to go until the 3 November US presidential election, Trump could unveil those measures in his speech at the UN General Assembly on Tuesday.

On Sunday, a senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Washington on Monday would sanction more than two dozen people and entities involved in Iran's nuclear, missile and conventional arms programmes, according to Reuters.

The official claimed that Iran could have enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon by the end of the year and that Tehran had resumed long-range missile cooperation with nuclear-armed North Korea. He did not provide detailed evidence regarding either assertion.

"Iran is clearly doing everything it can to keep in existence a virtual turnkey capability to get back into the weaponisation business at a moment's notice, should it choose to do so," the US official told Reuters. "Because of Iran's provocative nuclear escalation, it could have sufficient fissile material for a nuclear weapon by the end of this year." 

The new executive order would define conventional weapons broadly as any item with a potential military use, meaning it could cover such things as speedboats that Iran retrofits to harass vessels in international waters, the US official said. It would also apply to conventional circuit boards that can be used in ballistic missile guidance systems, he added.

'This will only make the US more isolated'

The more than two dozen targets to be hit with sanctions on Monday included those involved in Iran's conventional arms, nuclear and missile programmes, the official said, saying some of the targets were already sanctioned under other US programmes.

Among the targets would be Iran's "most nefarious arms organisations", about a dozen senior officials, scientists and experts from Iran's nuclear complex, members of a procurement network that supplies military-grade dual-use goods for Iran's missile programme, and several senior officials involved in Iran's ballistic missile program, the US official said.

The official declined to name the targets, but stressed that the United States wanted to deter foreign companies from dealing with them even if their governments believed this was legally permitted.

"You might have a split in some countries where a foreign government may claim that the UN sanctions don't snap back but their banks and companies will abide by US sanctions because they want to make sure they are not a future target," he said.

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Asked to comment on the impending new US sanctions and the Washington official's other statements, a spokesman for Iran's mission to the United Nations dismissed them as propaganda and said they would further isolate the United States.

"The US's 'maximum pressure' show, which includes new propaganda measures almost every week, has clearly failed miserably and announcing new measures will not change this fact," the mission's spokesman, Alireza Miryousefi, told Reuters.

"The entire world understands that these are a part of [the] next US election campaign, and they are ignoring the US's preposterous claims at the UN today. It will only make [the] US more isolated in world affairs," he said.

In mid-August, the United States suffered a resounding defeat at the UN Security Council when it tried to extend the embargo on conventional weapons being sent to Tehran, which was due to expire in October.

Pompeo made an unusually vehement attack on France, Britain and Germany, accusing them of "siding with Iran's ayatollahs", and on 20 August announced the snapback.

The Trump administration, however, is acting as if the international sanctions are in place, while the rest of the international community continues to act as if nothing has changed.

Washington is hammering home that the arms embargo has been extended "indefinitely" and that many activities related to Tehran's nuclear and ballistic missile programmes are now subject to international sanctions.

'I don't see anything happening'

Some observers said Washington's latest announcement was counterproductive.

"I don't see anything happening," said one UN diplomat, speaking to AFP. "It would be just a statement. It's like pulling a trigger and no bullet coming out."

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Another diplomat deplored the "unilateral" US act, saying that "Russia and China are sitting, happy, eating popcorn, watching" the "huge destabilising fallout" between Washington and its European partners.

Russia's deputy ambassador to the UN, Dmitry Polyanskiy, lamented the decision.

"It's very painful to see how a great country humiliates itself like this, opposes in its obstinate delirium other members of UN Security Council," he tweeted.

"We all clearly said in August that US claims to trigger #snapback are illegitimate. Is Washington deaf?"

But if the United States were to carry out the threat of secondary sanctions, tensions could continue to spiral.