Next Spectacle to Watch is Trump-Putin Summit
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wears a facemask as he departs after meeting with UN Security Council members regarding restoration of sanctions against Iran, United Nations headquarters, New York, August 20, 2020.
As expected, the Trump Administration delivered letters on Thursday to both the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and to the president of the Security Council Dian Triansyah Djani notifying them that the United States is initiating the restoration of virtually all UN sanctions on Iran lifted under UN Security Council Resolution 2231.
This process, if successful, could lead to those sanctions coming back into effect 30 days from August 20. Explaining the move, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated at the UN Headquarters in New York at a press conference that the US “will never allow (Iran) to freely buy and sell planes, tanks, missiles, and other kinds of conventional weapons. These UN sanctions will continue the arms embargo… also reimpose accountability for other forms of Iranian malign activity…
“Iran will be again prohibited from ballistic missile testing. Iran will be back under sanctions for ongoing nuclear activities – such as the enrichment of nuclear material – that could be applied to a nuclear weapons program,” Pompeo added.
In essence, the US has triggered the “snapback” process notifying the security council that Iran is breaching the JCPOA (2015 Iran nuclear deal), whereupon, the council’s members or its president must introduce a resolution to continue the suspension of the UN embargoes under 2231.
The battle lines are drawn. An overwhelming majority of UN SC members are opposed to the US move. A US resolution last week seeking extension of the UN arms embargo on Iran met with crushing defeat with only the Dominican Republic supporting it. In a scathing criticism, New York Times wrote that the US has “largely isolated itself from the world order.”
On Thursday, UK, France and Germany issued a joint statement questioning the US’ credentials to make such a move, saying, inter alia, “The U.S. ceased to be a participant to the JCPOA following their withdrawal from the deal on 8 May, 2018… We cannot therefore support this action which is incompatible with our current efforts to support the JCPOA.”
The Politico in a dispatch from Berlin wrote that the US move has left European allies in “an awkward position … For now, the European strategy is to play for time. If Pompeo triggers the snapback, they’re likely to look for ways to delay a final decision until after the November 3 presidential election in the hope Joe Biden would reverse Trump’s course.” Russia and China have explicitly rejected the US move, too. On Thursday, Russia sought an “open debate” at the Security Council, but the US promptly shot it down.
Of course, the UN SC’s rotating presidency — held by Indonesia through August — could simply ignore the US notification of Iran’s noncompliance with the JCPOA. (But Pompeo said he’s “confident” the notification won’t be ignored.) If the US pushes ahead and imposes its will, Russia and China may proceed to defy the “snapback” sanctions.
Tehran has warned that it will strongly react to “snapback” sanctions. A range of options remain open to Iran, including exit from Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Tehran remains defiant: on Thursday, it unveiled a new ballistic missile (named after Gen. Qassem Soleimani) and another cruise missile.
Indeed, a confrontation that irreparably damages the standing of the UN SC is in no one’s interest. President Trump himself did some kite-flying recently that he could get a deal with Iran within four weeks if re-elected. On Tuesday, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner appealed through Voice of America to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to engage with Washington. “For President Rouhani, I would say it’s time for the region to move forward. Let’s stop being stuck in conflicts of the past. It’s time for people to get together and to make peace.”
Trump seems open to shifting course after November. Despite the failure of his “maximum pressure” approach, Trump wants a deal with Iran that outdoes Obama. Which means that after the election, freed from Jewish donors and conservative Evangelicals, a shift could be more likely on his part than a continuation of the status quo.
This is where President Vladimir Putin’s proposal of August 14 on the holding of an online summit of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany and Iran soon to focus on the JCPOA implementation issues — to “set out steps to avoid confrontation and tensions in the UN Security Council” — comes into play.
Trump has rejected Putin’s proposal “for the time being” with a hint he may revisit it after November. On Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also hinted that all is not lost. Peskov said: “Indeed, the US rejection does not allow us to gather in this format as it was proposed from the start.
“However, it does not mean that the dialogue with the other states is halted on the Iranian issue. This dialogue for the sake of viability of the JCPOA and for the sake of settlement will definitely be continued.”
Indeed, much is happening elsewhere on the template of Russian-American relations. The NBC News disclosed on August 16 quoting “four people familiar with the subject” that Trump has told aides he’d like to hold an in-person meeting with Putin before the November election.
The Administration officials have since “explored various times and locations” for a summit, including potentially next month in New York.
The report added, “The goal of a summit would be for the two leaders to announce progress towards a new nuclear arms control agreement … One option under consideration is for the two leaders to sign a blueprint for a way forward in negotiations on extending New START.” This was almost exactly what I had predicted. (See US snapback sanctions on Iran not easily done, Asia Times)
A Russian-American confrontation over Iran — with all its ramifications for international security — is not on Trump or Putin’s calculus. Trump lost a great deal of time through his first term to improve relations with Russia but being a consummate deal maker, he hasn’t given up hope.
Nor has Putin. An agreement to renew START is one offer from Trump that Putin cannot afford to spurn, something he’s been keenly seeking, as it could open pathway for a resumption of arms control talks that would not only strengthen strategic balance and make US-Russia relations more predictable but enhance Russia’s global standing.
Furthermore, Trump at this point in time also hopes to win over Russia and isolate China. Putin, being a realist, would know the contradictions in US domestic politics that might stymie Trump’s belated effects to cap and rollback the slide in US-Russian relations. Equally, Putin believes in the raison d’être of Sino-Russian entente, which is a strategic choice and necessity for Moscow — as unfolding events in Minsk only underscore.
Suffice to say, Putin will stick to his pragmatic foreign-policy trajectory that prioritises Russia’a national interests. He’ll accept Trump’s invitation to a summit.
In such a complex backdrop of shifting moods in big-power politics, it is neither in American nor Russian interest to get entangled just now in acrimonious confrontation at the horseshoe table in the UN Hqs in New York while preparations have begun for a likely Trump-Putin summit.
The moment is at hand for Putin to step in as mediator to navigate the US-Iran standoff to calmer waters — perhaps, even bring the two implacable adversaries to the negotiating table. In the current US election cycle, this can only work to Trump’s advantage.
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