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Pompeo’s Cynical Attack on the Nuclear Deal

The Trump administration has been desperately trying to kill the nuclear deal for the last two years after reneging on it. Now they will try to kill it by pretending to be part of it again:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is preparing a legal argument that the United States remains a participant in the Iran nuclear accord that President Trump has renounced, part of an intricate strategy to pressure the United Nations Security Council to extend an arms embargo on Tehran or see far more stringent sanctions reimposed on the country.

The administration’s latest destructive ploy won’t find any support on the Security Council. There is nothing “intricate” about this idea. It is a crude, heavy-handed attempt to employ the JCPOA’s own provisions to destroy it. It is just the latest in a series of administration moves that tries to have things both ways. They want to renege on U.S. commitments while still refusing to allow Iran to benefit from the agreement, and they ultimately hope to make things difficult enough for Iran that their government chooses to give up on the agreement. It reeks of bad faith and contempt for international law, and all other governments will be able to see right through it. Some of our European allies have already said as much:

European diplomats who have learned of the effort maintain that Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo are selectively choosing whether they are still in the agreement to fit their agenda.

It is significant that the Trump administration feels compelled to go through this charade after telling everyone for years that the U.S. is no longer in the deal. Until now, Trump administration officials have been unwavering in saying that the U.S. is out of the deal and can’t be considered a participant in it:

The reporting on this at the time showed that the administration understood that abandoning the JCPOA meant giving up the possibility of using the provision that they are now hoping to use:

Shortly before Trump announced plans to withdraw from the pact, National Security Advisor John Bolton suggested to reporters that the United States would not turn to the U.N. Security Council to remake the nuclear accord because “we’re out of the deal.”

“At this time, there’s no plan to go up to New York” to push for a snapback of sanctions, a senior State Department official explains. “The United States is out of the deal … so we’re not going to use a provision as if we were still a participant in the deal to invoke the snapback.”

Leave it to someone as dishonest as Pompeo to try to claim that the U.S. belongs to a deal that it flatly rejected.

Trying to use the so-called “snapback” mechanism in an effort to destroy the JCPOA is a deeply cynical maneuver. The mechanism was designed to be used only when Iran failed to comply with the agreement, and it was meant to be used by the other parties on the assumption that they would have honored their commitments. The U.S. violated the deal first when it reimposed sanctions despite ongoing Iranian compliance, and Iran remained in full compliance for another year after that. Iran has reduced its compliance in protest against U.S. sanctions in the hope that the other parties to the deal would devise a way to provide them with the relief they were promised. Iran has wanted to keep the agreement alive, and so have all of the other P5+1 members besides the U.S. The administration’s so-called “strategy” depends on getting one or more of these governments to turn against the agreement they have spent years defending against U.S. attacks.

Had the U.S. not reneged on the JCPOA in 2018, there would be no issue with Iranian compliance today. By all rights, there ought to have been some sort of “snapback” mechanism to penalize the other parties for breaking their promises, but at the time no one seriously thought that any of the P5+1 countries would want to tear up a successful nonproliferation agreement. The “snapback” mechanism was meant to preserve the JCPOA, and all of the other parties to the deal know this. No one else is going to accept the administration’s argument that the U.S. is once again part of the agreement just so that it can blow up what remains of it.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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