Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says the United Nations will not support reimposing sanctions on Iran as the United States is demanding until he gets a green light from the Security Council.
The UN chief said in a letter to the council president obtained Sunday by The Associated Press that "there would appear to be uncertainty" on whether or not US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo triggered the "snapback" mechanism in the Security Council resolution that enshrined the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six major powers.
The Trump administration declared Saturday that all UN sanctions against Iran have been restored, a move most of the rest of the world rejects as illegal and is likely to ignore. The US announcement is certain to cause controversy during the UN’s annual high-level meetings of the General Assembly starting Monday, which is being held mainly virtually this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The US announcement came 30 days after Pompeo notified the council that the administration was triggering "snapback" because Iran was in "significant non-performance" with its obligations under the accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.
But the overwhelming majority of members in the 15-nation council call the US action illegal because President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the plan in 2018.
They point to Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the nuclear agreement. It states that "a JCPOA participant state" can trigger the "snapback" mechanism. The US insists that as an original participant it has the legal right, even though it ceased participating.
Guterres noted in the letter that "the Security Council has taken no action subsequent to the receipt of the letter of the US secretary of state, neither have any of its members or its president."
He said the majority of council members have written to the council president "to the effect that the letter did not constitute a notification" that "snapback" was triggered. And he said the presidents of the council for August and September "have indicated that they were not in a position to take any action in regard to this matter."
Therefore, Guterres said: "It is not for the secretary-general to proceed as if no such uncertainty exists."
The UN Secretariat, which Guterres heads, provides support to the Security Council in implementing sanctions including establishing committees and panels of experts to monitor their implementation along with websites on the nature of sanctions and lists of those on sanctions blacklists.
Guterres said the UN won't take any action "pending clarification by the Security Council" on whether or not sanctions that have been lifted should be reimposed.
Under the "snapback" provision, UN sanctions eased or lifted by the nuclear deal are re-imposed and must be enforced by UN member states. Those would include hitting Iran with penalties for uranium enrichment to any level, ballistic missile activity and buying or selling conventional weapons.
Those bans were either removed or set to expire under the terms of the 2015 deal in which Iran was granted billions of dollars in sanctions relief in return for curbs on its nuclear program.
China and Russia have been particularly adamant in rejecting the US position, but US allies have not been shy either.
In a letter sent Friday to the Security Council president, Britain, France and Germany - the three European participants who remain committed to the agreement - said the US announcement "is incapable of having legal effect," so it cannot reimpose sanctions on Iran.
Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Dmitry Polyanskiy, said the US had only isolated itself. "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 wrote on Twitter.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who coordinates the JCPOA Joint Commission, reiterated that the US cannot be considered "a JCPOA participant state and cannot initiate the process of reinstating UN sanctions." Consequently, he said, the sanctions remain lifted.
China’s UN Mission tweeted: "US unilateral announcement on the return of UN sanctions on IRAN is devoid of any legal, political or practical effect. ... It’s time to end the political drama by the US."
In its own letter to the Security Council on Saturday, Iran said the US move "is null and void, has no legal standing and effect and is thus completely unacceptable."
The White House plans to issue an executive order on Monday spelling out how the US will enforce the restored sanctions, and the State and Treasury departments are expected to outline how foreign individuals and businesses will be penalized for violations.
"The United States expects all U.N. member states to fully comply with their obligations to implement these measures," Pompeo said. "If U.N, member states fail to fulfill 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."
It remains unclear how the administration will respond to being ignored, particularly by its European allies, which have pledged to keep the nuclear deal alive. A wholesale rejection of the UN position could push the administration, which has already withdrawn from multiple U.N. agencies, organizations and treaties, further away from the international community.