Trump steps up Iran fight in final election stretch
President Trump is ramping up a fight with both Iran and U.S. allies with just weeks to go before the presidential election.
The Trump administration insists all United Nations sanctions against Iran will come back into effect Saturday night and has vowed to enforce them even though the vast majority of the Security Council has rejected the United States’ authority to reimpose the sanctions.
The gambit could trigger an escalation with Iran in the final stretch of the election, and risks shining a spotlight on the administration’s increasing isolation on the world stage — though the election could also mean countries stay in a holding pattern until then.
“Even graduated or incremental escalation by Iran, being on the nuclear file or regionally, can always go awry,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “But it’s clear that both the U.S. and Iran don’t want to be in a new [escalation] cycle before the election.”
The United States’ European allies, he added, similarly are “driven by the desire to keep the JCPOA on ice in the hopes of a change in Washington’s Iran policy” if President Trump loses reelection.
At issue is the Trump administration’s effort to snap back U.N. sanctions on Iran that were lifted as part of the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and several world powers, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The sanctions issue is coming to a head just before President Trump is slated to speak virtually at next week’s United Nations General Assembly meeting, where he is expected to criticize Iran. At last year’s U.N. meeting, Trump slammed Iran’s “bloodlust.”
Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo invoked the process to snap back sanctions, saying he set off a 30-day clock for the penalties to come into place.
Pompeo’s move came after the U.N. Security Council soundly rejected a U.S. resolution to extend a conventional arms embargo on Iran that is expiring in October. Restoring the pre-nuclear deal sanctions would extend the arms embargo.
But every member of the 15-member Security Council except for the Dominican Republic rejected the U.S. standing to force the reimposition of sanctions since Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal in 2018.
Still, the administration holds the rejection means nothing and that legally the sanctions will be back in place at 8 p.m. Saturday.
“We expect every nation to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions – period, full stop,” Pompeo said at a news conference this week. “And the United States is intent on enforcing all the U.N. Security Council resolutions.”
Elliott Abrams, the administration’s special envoy for Iran, also teased to reporters that announcements would be coming this weekend or Monday on enforcing sanctions against those who violate the arms embargo.
The impending action reportedly entails Trump signing an executive order authorizing secondary sanctions on anyone who violates the arms embargo.
While European countries are concerned about the expiration of the arms embargo, they continue to support the nuclear deal and worry the Trump administration’s moves are driven by a desire to kill the agreement. After Pompeo’s announcement last month, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said he would “continue to do everything possible to ensure the preservation and full implementation of the JCPOA by all.”
Both Russia and China have expressed interest in selling Iran weapons after the arms embargo lifts in October.
Taleblu said Trump’s executive order would serve as a “deterrent message” by outlining when the United States would “come down on those entities like a ton of bricks.”
“One would hope it remains symbolic because one would hope the threat would be sufficient to deter them,” he said. “It’s important to see these sanctions both as a form of deterrence and only if deterrence fails should these sanctions then react to that behavior by the other side.”
Trump’s fiercest critics have charged he is stoking tensions with Iran as part of his reelection bid.
In addition to the snapback sanctions, Trump this week threatened “an attack on Iran that will be 1,000 times greater in magnitude” if it carries out a reported plot to assassinate the U.S. ambassador to South Africa in retaliation for the U.S. assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
“Trump’s Twitter threat should be seen for what it is: a transparent ploy to escalate conflict with Iran in the hopes of boosting his electoral prospects,” Win Without War Deputy Director Sara Haghdoosti said in a statement after Trump’s tweet.
South Africa’s government said Friday that intelligence presented to it by the United States “is not sufficient to sustain the allegation that there is a credible threat against the United States Ambassador to South Africa.”
Peter Harrel, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, predicted Trump’s sanctions executive order “is mostly going to be show, rather than substance” because he said the United States has existing authority to unilaterally sanction countries that sell arms to Iran.
Still, Harrel expressed concern that the Trump administration’s move chips away at the credibility of the United Nations.
“U.N. sanctions have always been a very valuable tool to the U.S. because they are legally binding on all countries and generally speaking countries do feel an obligation to implement them,” he said. “My hope is that this is just kind of a one-off that fades into history and becomes something for law students to write journal articles on.”
Harrel said he wouldn’t expect any arms sales immediately so as not to provoke a pre-election fight with Trump, nor is he expecting Iran to immediately lash out.
“I would bet Iranians hold off on a truly provocative act until after the U.S. election,” he said. “I think they probably also want to see where this lands.”
Political risk consultancy the Eurasia Group also predicted Iran will have a muted response to the snapback sanctions, saying Tehran could announce some new nuclear advancements but will “probably stop short of the major or tangible steps that would provoke international outcry.”
“Iranian leaders have taken pleasure in highlighting Washington’s failure to secure Security Council buy-in; Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani will likely portray the disputed snapback as a victory, not a setback, thereby reducing domestic pressure to respond,” Eurasia Group analysts wrote in a note to clients and the media this week, adding that Tehran also “continues to wait for the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.”