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Snapback won’t stop a nuclear Iran, but it does stop diplomacy

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With the latest threat to abandon the U.S. embassy in Baghdad over Iranian proxies attacks, the U.S. needs to reexamine its sanctions campaign against Iran. The Trump administration instituted unilateral sanctions recently to enforce “Snapback,” a resumption of restrictions on arms sales to Iran after the U.S. was unable to gain approval from the UN Security Council in August. As stated by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the goal is “to stop Iran’s nuclear, ballistic missile, and conventional weapons pursuits.” But these sanctions, whether under dubious international legal premises, or unilateral sanctions by the Treasury and State departments, don’t promote the stated end of preventing aggression and nuclear proliferation.  

Under United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231, which stipulates arms sale restrictions and limits on Iranian nuclear activities, states agreed to limit Iran’s nuclear activities as well as its military imports. UNSCR 2231 lists expiration dates for these restrictions at the five, eight, and ten-year marks. Having just arrived at the first expiration date, what are the stakes? 

First, per the resolution, Iran can now purchase most conventional military weapons, including tanks, military aircraft, and notably after this year’s U.S.-Iran showdown, missile systems. Is this a cause for concern? No. Iran’s entire military strategy focuses on unconventional warfare — domestically-manufactured missilesproxy forces such as Hezbollah, and speedboats. With its relatively modest military spending, Iran has to be selective in what it spends on. As Secretary of State Michael Pompeo once speculated, Iran’s budget can’t accommodate purchasing multiple divisions of Chinese tanks

But even if Iran were to purchase outside arms, this is something which we should want a “normal country” to do. A more conventionalized Iranian military would be easier to deter and decrease the incidence of proxy attacks, which nearly caused a war this year. Unlike its proxies, Iran has physical hard targets that can be hit, and can’t feign ambiguity over the command-and-control of its own armed forces. Snapback sanctions would force Iran to remain an abnormal country. 

Second, UNSCR 2231 is still adequate to stop an Iranian nuclear threat without resorting to Snapback. The provisions block Iran from receiving anything that “could contribute to the development of nuclear weapon delivery systems” until 2023. In other words, nothing Iran could purchase would aid it in creating a usable nuclear weapon. Despite recent violations of the nuclear deal, Iran is still allowing inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor Iranian nuclear activities—inspections that are not slated to stop for another 10-20 years. Forcing obsolete sanctions on conventional weapons doesn’t get Iran back into compliance with the deal, and it doesn’t increase the technical difficulties in obtaining a nuclear weapon.

There’s little upside to triggering Snapback. What are the downsides? For one, diplomatic isolation. In the most recent UNSC vote, only the Dominican Republic sided with the U.S., while the rest of the UNSC sided against it. Germany, Britain, and France delivered a harsher rebuke of U.S. snapback, noting that as a nonparticipant in the nuclear deal, the U.S. procedural maneuvers are “incapable of having legal effect.” Likewise, the UN Secretary-General stated the UN would not support sanctions without UN Security Council support. 

While aggravating U.S. allies is a downside not worth overlooking, the even more crucial aspect is what effect snapback would have in future U.S.-Iran relations. As both Biden and Trump claim to want, bringing Iran back to the negotiating table is harder when U.S. diplomacy is wielded exclusively as a means of coercion. And this isn’t lost on Iranians, either. A 2018 University of Maryland poll found that only 1.4 percent of Iranians supported further nuclear concessions if the U.S. pulled out of the Iran deal. With the hardliner wing trouncing the moderate wing in Iranian elections, this anti-moderate swing has become a reality, and the prospect of diplomacy is looking increasingly precarious. Snapback won’t help make the return to diplomacy any easier.

Fixing U.S. policy with Iran cannot be accomplished overnight. But the latest iteration of sanctions will not assist the U.S. in accomplishing any of its policy goals. If we want a non-nuclear and peaceful Iran, treading down the same coercive diplomacy path is not the way to accomplish that. Two years of Maximum Pressure have only made the prospect of war more likely, the prospect of a nuclear Iran more likely, and the path to peace more difficult. Snapback is just a callback to another failed strategy.

Geoff LaMear is a Boren scholar at the University of Chicago and currently a Marcellus Policy Fellow at the John Quincy Adams Society.

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