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Pompeo calls it ‘just nuts’ to allow Iran to trade in arms as U.N. rejects embargo extension

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks with reporters Friday  in Vienna.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks with reporters Friday in Vienna. (Lisi Niesner/Pool/Reuters)
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The United States suffered an embarrassing defeat at the United Nations on Friday when the Security Council refused to go along with a U.S. proposal to extend an arms embargo against Iran that is due to expire in two months.

After a full 24 hours of voting conducted virtually because of coronavirus concerns, the 15-member council rebuffed a pared-down U.S. resolution that would have indefinitely extended the embargo, which has been in place since 2007.

The vote paves the way for the embargo to be lifted on Oct. 18, as described in the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major world powers, including the United States — a prospect Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday labeled “just nuts” and said the United States will not allow to transpire.

Pompeo blasted the Security Council’s “failure to hold Iran accountable” in a statement sent out half an hour before the vote was announced.

“It rejected a reasonable resolution to extend the 13-year old arms embargo on Iran and paved the way for the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism to buy and sell conventional weapons without specific UN restrictions in place for the first time in over a decade,” he said. “The Security Council’s failure to act decisively in defense of international peace and security is inexcusable.”

Pompeo predicted that the decision would sow chaos and destruction, and vowed to block Iran’s arms trade despite the vote.

“The United States will never abandon our friends in the region who expected more from the Security Council,” he said. “We will continue to work to ensure that the theocratic terror regime does not have the freedom to purchase and sell weapons that threaten the heart of Europe, the Middle East and beyond.”

The vote was a sharp repudiation of the Trump administration’s approach to Iran, the target of a “maximum pressure campaign” of sanctions that has been one of its signature foreign policies.

Underscoring the breadth of the opposition to the U.S. proposal, only the Dominican Republic voted with the United States for the embargo’s extension. Russia and China voted against it. Eleven members abstained, including France, Britain and Germany, the European countries that helped negotiate the 2015 deal and have struggled to salvage it.

The resolution before the Security Council was far less expansive than the initial version the United States circulated in June that spelled out a host of provisions in 35 paragraphs over seven pages. It would have authorized inspections of Iranian vessels and weapons seizures.

But that draft gained little support within the Security Council. Russia and China, both permanent members of the council, signaled their intent to use their veto to sink it.

The United States came up a compromise draft that was only four paragraphs long. Gone were the explicit criticism of Iran and a section calling for a sanctions committee to monitor Tehran’s compliance.

Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., accused the Security Council of falling victim to narrow political interests “just to save face and protect a failed political deal made outside the Council,” a reference to the nuclear deal. She said the United States would seek the return of nuclear-related sanctions under the resolution that endorsed the agreement.

“Under Resolution 2231, the United States has every right to initiate snapback of provisions of previous Security Council resolutions,” she said. “In the coming days, the United States will follow through on that promise to stop at nothing to extend the arms embargo.”

Though the vote focused on a U.N. embargo against conventional weapons, the measure was intrinsically linked to the Iran nuclear deal that President Trump walked away from in 2018. The other negotiating partners — France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China — still support the agreement.

Trump and Pompeo contend that Iran remains a threat to regional stability, in large part because it continues to arm militant groups in neighboring countries. That is why Pompeo and his top aides spent two years in an international lobbying campaign about the need for the arms embargo, whose lifting is part of the U.N. resolution endorsing the 2015 agreement. The six Arab nations in the Gulf Cooperation Council have pushed to extend the embargo, despite the agreement.

“Letting the arms embargo expire was a big deficiency of the Iran nuclear deal,” Brian Hook, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran, told reporters Thursday. “It was an irresponsible concession. We are doing our best to fix the mistake.”

But dropping out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the deal’s official name, has isolated the United States on the issue, even among allies that share its concerns over Iran and its imminent resumption of buying and selling weapons. Most members of the council want to preserve the nuclear agreement, and Iran could have bailed out of it if the embargo had been extended and resume its nuclear program full tilt.

The United States argues that even though it has left the nuclear deal, it retains the right as an original “JCPOA participant” to trigger the “snapback” of sanctions over any issue that violates the agreement, even though it no longer is a participant in it.

Both Russia and China have dismissed the U.S. position, saying that since it left the agreement it has no right to keep the arms embargo in place.

The Europeans have struggled to keep the nuclear agreement with Iran alive and worry about losing a window into Iran’s nuclear program through monitors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

“The Europeans see this through the prism of the JCPOA, rather than the issue of the lapsing arms embargo,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “How they vote is defined by their attachment to the JCPOA.”

Some observers fear that the U.S. pursuit of a sanctions snapback could cause an existential crisis in the Security Council itself.

“The question is, does the rest of the Security Council believe the snapback is legitimate?” said Trita Parsi, the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “It’s possible they’ll ignore it. And what’s the value of the Security Council if they can’t agree on what authority they have?”

As if to drive home the point that the administration will not relent in its “maximum pressure” campaign to disrupt Iran’s economy, the Justice Department announced Friday that it had seized four ships carrying fuel to Venezuela in what it called the “largest-ever seizure of fuel shipments from Iran.”

The ships, carrying an estimated 1.1 million barrels of fuel, will have their cargo confiscated on arrival in Houston under a forfeiture order issued by a federal court in early July.

U.S. officials had contacted the foreign flagged vessels, believed to be Greek-owned, warning that their contents could be taken. The four then peeled off from a nine-ship convoy whose other vessels were Iranian, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

Venezuela, which lacks refining capacity, has been trading crude oil and gold to Iran in exchange for refined petroleum products, according to administration officials.

Pompeo, while visiting Vienna where the 2015 nuclear deal was negotiated and signed, met with Rafael Grossi, director of the IAEA. Pompeo said the United States would employ “everything we can within our diplomatic tool kit” to stop Iran from buying weapons that could be deployed against Israel and other U.S. allies in the Middle East and Europe.

“We can’t allow the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism to buy and sell weapons,” Pompeo said at a news conference Friday just before he met with Grossi. “I mean, that’s just nuts.”

Karen DeYoung in Washington and Rick Noack in Berlin contributed to this report.