What’s Snapback and Why Does It Matter?

The Trump administration has begun a 30-day process to “snapback” international sanctions on Iran that were suspended because of the Iran nuclear deal. What does snapback mean, and why is it important?

The deal, formally titled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), freed Iran from enormous international restrictions imposed in response to its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The Iranian regime agreed to temporary, easily reversible limits on its nuclear program in exchange for permanent, sweeping sanctions relief.

But because Iran has repeatedly violated its international commitments—including by secretly pursuing nuclear weapons—the agreement included an unprecedented provision: the aforementioned sanctions could be reimposed  (snapback) at the request of a single JCPOA participant- — China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, the European Union, and Iran.

A participant can file for snapback in response to Iranian noncompliance. Normally, such a mammoth change to international sanctions would require approval by the 15-member United Nations Security Council, with at least nine member states voting in favor and no veto by any of the Council’s permanent members (P-5)—the five countries participating in the JCPOA, except for Germany and Iran. But here, the burden is reversed: the Council would have 30 days to vote to prevent snapback and continue the present sanctions relief.

This snapback provision was included in the JCPOA to ensure that if Iran violated the deal, any one P-5 country could mandate snapback even if the other four—indeed, even if the other 14 on the Council—opposed it. This ability to invoke snapback unilaterally was used to sell the JCPOA to Congress and the American people. As then-President Barack Obama said then, “If Iran violates the agreement over the next decade, all of the sanctions can snap back into place. We won’t need the support of other members of the U.N. Security Council, America can trigger snapback on our own.” Thus, what the U.S. is doing now is explicitly provided for by the deal. Snapback is a feature, not a bug.

And the ‘snapped back’ restrictions, imposed over the course of six Council resolutions, would be substantial. As Reuters notes, snapback:

…would require Iran to suspend all nuclear enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development, and ban imports of anything that could contribute to those activities or to the development of nuclear weapon delivery systems. It would reimpose the arms embargo, ban Iran from developing ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons and reimpose targeted sanctions on dozens of individuals and entities. Countries also would be urged to inspect shipments to and from Iran and authorized to seize any banned cargo.

However, the rest of the P5+1 claim that the U.S. is unable to invoke snapback because it is no longer a participant of the deal. The administration used its withdrawal from the deal to reimpose sanctions it would not have been able to apply if it remained party to the JCPOA. Therefore, the U.S. cannot have its cake and eat it too, they say. Indeed, France, Germany, and the U.K. claim that any actions to implement a U.S.-imposed snapback would be “devoid of any legal effect.” China and Russia have stated that they will ignore such a snapback. And because many Council member states deny the U.S. has any right to request snapback, Niger, which holds the Council’s rotating presidency in September, reportedly may simply decline to hold a vote on the matter.

The State Department has issued a memo defending America’s right to trigger snapback, saying that U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed and gave effect to the deal, listed the U.S. as a participating state, and nowhere required that any state who left the deal would lose its rights as a participating state, including the right to trigger snapback. Regardless, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said that the U.S. will “enforce the [snapped-back] sanctions,” regardless of which country violates them.

Critics have argued that, even if the U.S. can invoke snapback, it should not, because such unilateral action would alienate our allies and therefore weaken our ability to address both the Iranian nuclear threat and other national security issues. But again, the very existence of the right of unilateral snapback in the deal was explicitly designed to allow participant states to do exactly what the U.S. is now doing. While supporters of the deal oppose unilateral snapback now, they used its existence to sell the deal in the first place to a skeptical American public.

Supporters of the U.S. invocation of snapback argue that it is justified by Iranian noncompliance and by the looming expiration of the international arms embargo against Iran. Snapback would eliminate the sunset of the embargo, and thereby preserve restrictions on Iran’s ability to buy weapons or provide them to other malign actors like the Syrian regime, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis.

While supporters of the JCPOA  argue that the U.S. could have extended the arms embargo if it stayed in the deal and partnered with the E.U. and others to that end, the embargo’s sunset was a key part of the deal and extending it would have drawn objections from Iran as well as P-5 members Russia and China, both of whom want to increase their own arms sales to Iran. Indeed, that is why the sunset of the arms embargo, which has nothing to do with Iran’s nuclear program, was included in the nuclear deal in the first place. The inability to extend the embargo also doesn’t bode well for keeping in place international sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program, which, pursuant to the JCPOA, are due to expire in three years.

If snapback goes ahead and the nuclear deal collapses, can both supporters and opponents of snapback find consensus on a new policy to prevent a nuclear Iran? Such a policy could learn from the JCPOA’s failures.

First, any permanent easing of sanctions on Iran could be tied to permanent concessions by the regime. In particular, as was longstanding international policy until the JCPOA, Iran would be prohibited from ever enriching uranium, as such material could be used for nuclear weapons.

Second, any new agreement could cover the totality of Iran’s threatening behavior, including not only its nuclear-weapons quest but its ballistic-missile program and sponsorship of terrorism.

And third, a new deal could be structured not as another nonbinding political agreement —like the JCPOA—but as a treaty. The U.S. Constitution requires treaties to be approved by two-thirds of the Senate. Meeting such a threshold would require bipartisan buy-in—buy-in that could not be obtained without much tougher restrictions on the Iranian regime.

Most likely, international sanctions on Iran will be snapped back into effect on September 19—either de jure, according to the U.S. position, or simply de facto, because of the deterrent effect of the Trump administration’s determination to enforce those sanctions. The day after snapback, all responsible nations should work together about what matters most—stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons.