In twist to press arms ban, US asserts role in Iran deal


President Donald Trump's administration has persistently trashed a nuclear deal with Iran. But as it seeks to extend an arms embargo, it is making the case that it still has a seat at the table.

The push has drawn skepticism from Western allies and has led critics to question if the ultimate aim is to kill the deal entirely, potentially in the final stretch of Trump's re-election campaign.

"You cannot cherry-pick a resolution saying you implement only parts of it but you won't do it for the rest," a Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called on United Nations members to renew the ban on all conventional arms exports to Iran which is due to expire in October.

He renewed his push last week after Iran said it had launched a military satellite into orbit for the first time -- proving, according to Pompeo, that the clerical regime had been deceitful in saying its space program was for peaceful purposes.

The launch should lead more countries to "understand what President Trump has understood since he first came into office, that the Iran deal was a crazy, bad deal," Pompeo told the Christian Broadcasting Network.

The arms embargo was part of a 2015 UN Security Council Resolution -- whose primary purpose was to bless the deal, negotiated by former president Barack Obama, under which Iran drastically scaled back its nuclear program.

Former secretary of state John Kerry has said the five-year embargo was a compromise with Russia and China, which opposed any limits.

Wielding veto power, Russia and China are virtually certain to oppose a new embargo, with Moscow potentially in line for billions of dollars in arms contracts.

But there is one way to skirt a veto -- if a party to the deal asserts that Iran is in significant violation of it, which would trigger a return of international sanctions.

A US official and several diplomats said that the Trump administration is pushing forward with the stance, disputed by some, that the United States is able to declare Iran in violation.

In a legal opinion issued last year to please hawkish Republicans, the State Department argued that the United States could do so as it was listed a "participant state" in the 2015 resolution.

- 'Abject failure' -

The United States, of course, has shattered its own promises under the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was meant to offer economic relief to Iran and is still backed by European powers.

Trump, who is close to Iran's regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Israel, has imposed sweeping unilateral sanctions that include trying to block all of Iran's oil exports as he seeks to reduce Tehran's regional activities.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, responding on Twitter to a New York Times article on the strategy, said that Pompeo had hoped in exiting the deal to "bring Iran to its knees."

"Given that policy's abject failure, he now wants to be JCPOA participant. Stop dreaming: Iranian Nation always decides its destiny," Zarif wrote.

Even most US supporters of Obama's nuclear deal back the arms embargo, with a bipartisan resolution before the Senate seeking its extension.

But some believe Pompeo's motives, or at least the effects, would be broader if he tries to act from within the JCPOA.

"If Pompeo goes through with this plan, snapping back sanctions on Iran collapses the JCPOA," said Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, a research group in Washington.

Even more significant, the move could lead Iran to make good on threats to exit the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, she said.

"This is just another step that would undermine US credibility, make future negotiations with Iran more difficult and increase the risk of a nuclear crisis in the region," she said, adding that there were other avenues to address arms exports.

Iran has already stepped back compliance to protest US sanctions as well as a January drone strike that killed powerful general Qasem Soleimani.

A death-knell to the deal would leave a vacuum to reshape Iran policy either as Trump starts a second term or Joe Biden, who strongly backed the accord, enters the White House.afp

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