Over the weekend, the State Department proclaimed that U.N. sanctions once imposed on Iran were back in effect — only to be repudiated not just by Tehran, but by Washington’s closest allies. Britain, Germany and France, which for years partnered with the United States in seeking to curb Iran’s nuclear program, issued a joint statement saying the U.S. declaration was “incapable of having legal effect.” The three European nations, along with Russia and China, will continue to observe the terms of the 2015 accord limiting Iranian nuclear activity. In claiming the deal is dead and sanctions are back, the United States is alone.
The administration is seeking to force the rest of the world to conform with its version of reality by threatening sanctions against banks and companies that facilitate arms deals with Iran, or that support its nuclear and missile production. The continued reliance of the international financial system on the U.S. dollar adds teeth to the policy — though at the risk of further weakening international support for the dollar as a reserve currency.
Yet the bottom line is that the Trump administration has destroyed the international alliance that forced Tehran to limit activities that could have allowed it to build nuclear weapons. The “maximum pressure” campaign President Trump launched has failed either to obtain more concessions from Tehran, as he predicted, or to bring about regime change — the goal Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tacitly embraced. Meanwhile, Iran has stepped up nuclear work and now has five times as much enriched uranium as it did 2½ years ago.
The administration claimed the right to unilaterally reimpose U.N. sanctions under a provision of the nuclear deal allowing any of its signatories to so act. But U.S. allies, along with the rest of the Security Council, found that the United States forfeited its right when it pulled out of the pact. The dispute is more than technical: The Europeans want to preserve what remains of the deal, since it allows for U.N. inspectors to monitor and report on Iran’s nuclear work. The Trump administration, in contrast, offers no path forward other than an escalating conflict that could lead to war, an Iranian nuclear arsenal, or both.
Iran and U.S. allies will await the outcome of the November election, with the mutual hope that Mr. Trump will lose. Democrat Joe Biden has said that he would return the United States to the nuclear deal while seeking to improve on its terms in new negotiations. The latter will be a tall order: Iran will resist further concessions even if its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, allows further bargaining with Washington. At the least, though, Mr. Biden could mend the gaping rift between the United States and its closest allies — and reverse some of the most inept and self-defeating diplomacy in U.S. history.