The EU argues that as the US withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, it cannot demand a snapback of sanctions.
Britain, France, and Germany said on Thursday that they will oppose a US motion at the United Nations to reimpose sanctions on Iran.
In a joint statement, the three European nations said Washington cannot call for a "snapback" of sanctions because they withdrew from the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2018.
They were backed by China, Russia and the EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, who said in a statement that because it withdrew from the deal, the US "cannot, therefore, be considered a participant State for the purposes of possible sanctions snapback foreseen by the resolution."
"As coordinator of the JCPOA Joint Commission, I will continue to do everything possible to ensure the preservation and full implementation of the JCPOA by all. The JCPOA remains a key pillar of the global non-proliferation architecture, contributing to regional security," he added.
The Trump administration formally notified the United Nations on Thursday of its demand for all UN sanctions on Iran to be restored, citing significant Iranian violations of the 2015 nuclear deal.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered the notification to the president of the UN Security Council, setting the stage for a showdown in the world body that could lead to a crisis of credibility for its most important and powerful institution. Even before Pompeo presented the council president with the notice, other members rejected the step.
None of the other council members believe the US has the legal right to demand the re-imposition, or “snapback," of sanctions because President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018.
In a letter presented to Indonesia's ambassador to the UN, Dian Triansyah Djani, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the council, Pompeo said the US was notifying the body of “significant non-performance” by Iran related to the nuclear deal. As a result, Pompeo said the process leading to the re-imposition of UN sanctions had been initiated.
The UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has reported some Iranian violations of the agreement, but Tehran says those are the result of the US violating the accord by withdrawing from it and then re-imposing harsh unilateral sanctions.
Pompeo noted that the European participants in the deal had attempted to bring Iran back into compliance. But he said “despite extensive efforts and exhaustive diplomacy on the part of those member states, Iran's significant non-performance persists."
“As a result, the United States is left with no choice but to notify the council that Iran is in significant non-performance of its JCPOA commitments,” Pompeo wrote, using the acronym for the deal's formal name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
UK, France and Germany said that they "remain committed to the JCPoA despite the major challenges posed by the US withdrawal", adding that the issue of Iran's "systematic non-compliance with their commitments under the JCPOA must be addressed "within the framework of a dialogue between the participants in the agreement".
"We urge Iran to reconsider all its actions incompatible with its nuclear commitments and to return without delay to their full respect", the three countries said.
Pompeo's letter was accompanied by a six-page explanation of why the US believes it retains the right to invoke snapback, a mechanism afforded to participants in the nuclear accord by the Security Council resolution that enshrined the deal.
The US maintains that its withdrawal from the nuclear deal does not obviate its right as an original participant and a permanent Security Council member to demand the restoration of sanctions.
That argument, however, has already been rejected by the other members of the council, including US allies Britain and France, along with China and Russia.
China agrees with Russia
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told UN chief António Guterres in a Thursday phone call that the Security Council must resist the US demand.
"This would have dangerous consequences for international law, it will bring nothing but the destruction of international mechanisms and it will discredit the Security Council,” Zarif said.
Under the terms of the Security Council resolution that enshrined the nuclear deal, Thursday’s notification starts a 30-day clock after which pre-2015 UN sanctions on Iran that were eased will be re-imposed unless a resolution specifically extending their suspension is passed. The US, however, would use its veto power to block any resolution extending the sanctions relief.
Because of the legal debate over US standing, it is possible that the snapback demand will simply be ignored by the other members, which could call into question the Security Council’s relevance and ability to enforce its own legally binding decisions.
Trump and Pompeo had made no secret of their intention to pursue snapback, particularly after the administration’s embarrassing defeat last week at the Security Council on extending the arms embargo on Iran that expires in October. The US won just one other “yes” vote, with China and Russia opposed and the 11 other members abstaining.
As with the arms embargo, Russia and China bitterly oppose reimposing other UN sanctions on Iran. So do US allies Britain and France, which are hoping to preserve the nuclear deal in the event Trump loses his bid for a second term in November's presidential election. Democratic Joe Biden has said he would try to revive the agreement.
The Europeans fear that the reimposition of sanctions may lead Iran to quit the deal entirely and plow ahead with efforts to develop atomic weapons. The Trump administration says it withdrew precisely because it eased sanctions, opening major revenue streams for Iran while gradually easing restrictions on its nuclear activities that money could pay for.