A week after suffering a humiliating defeat at the U.N. Security Council, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was back for a rematch on Thursday. His legal argument is so astonishingly flimsy, he’s likely to be dealt a second trouncing.
Both motions involve his and President Donald Trump’s fixation with crushing Iran’s Islamist regime and destroying the Iran nuclear deal, which President Barack Obama signed with five other nations in 2015—and which Trump abrogated three years later.
Under the accord, which the other signatories are still trying to preserve as much as possible, a decadelong conventional arms embargo against Iran was to be lifted this October. (This was one phase of a widespread lifting of sanctions against Iran, in exchange for Iran’s dismantlement of its nuclear program.) On Aug. 14, Pompeo filed a motion with the Security Council to extend this arms embargo. Of the council’s 15 members, just two—the U.S. and the Dominican Republic—voted in favor. Russia and China opposed. The other 11 abstained.
The council members refused to line up with Pompeo for good reason. Since Trump withdrew from the accord, the U.S. no longer has standing to make such a motion. Also, though no one said so out loud, the members hope that, if Trump loses the November election, his successor, Joe Biden, will do all he can to bring the deal back to life.
On Thursday, Pompeo came back with a different argument. Since the nuclear deal was codified in a U.N. Security Council resolution, the United States, as a member of the council, still is a participant in the deal, he argues. Under the so-called slapback provision of the deal, if Iran is caught cheating, any of the signatories can unilaterally reimpose sanctions. (Pompeo tweeted a clip of Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, emphasizing this point.) Iran has cheated by exceeding the deal’s limits on enriching uranium and stockpiling nuclear fuel. Therefore, the United States is slapping back all sanctions that were in place before the deal was signed—including the arms embargo—and the other members must do so too.
There are several things wrong with Pompeo’s argument. First, international inspectors found Iran in compliance with the deal—until Trump withdrew from it, and began reimposing sanctions. Paragraph 36 of the deal states that if one country finds that others “were not meeting their commitments,” then, after consultations, it would have “grounds to cease performing its commitments.” (Iranian diplomats tried to dissuade the European signatories from restoring sanctions for a year before restarting its nuclear program.) In other words, Pompeo wants to punish Iran for taking what the deal allows as a legitimate defensive measure.
Second, Pompeo is playing a dangerous game when he argues that the United States is still a participant in the deal through its membership in the U.N. Security Council, which codified the deal as international law. If that’s how he wants to see things, he would also have to admit that Trump violated international law by withdrawing from the deal, reimposing sanctions, and forcing the other council members to reimpose sanctions or face sanctions themselves. You can’t break the law when you’d like, then insist that others follow the same law.
Third, there is a broader hypocrisy at the root of this legal game. Trump withdrew from the deal, saying it was “the worst deal ever” and would help, rather than hinder, Iran’s quest to build a nuclear weapon. This is complete nonsense, but if it were true, why should Trump or anyone else be bothered by the fact that Iran is now violating its terms? Or, to view it from a different angle, by making a fuss over Iran’s recent violations, Trump and Pompeo are, in effect, admitting that the Iran nuclear deal has value—is worth preserving, verifying, and enforcing.
Even John Bolton—Trump’s former national security adviser, who has long advocated regime change in Iran and intensely opposed the nuclear deal—recently argued in the Wall Street Journal that Pompeo’s case is frivolous; that, once the U.S. withdrew from the deal, it no longer has standing to impose judgments on the compliance of others.
During his Wednesday night speech at the Democratic National Convention, Obama denounced Trump for, among other things, never showing any “interest in taking the job seriously.” The same can be said of Pompeo. He and Trump see the world as a stage for playing out their own agendas and obsessions. This latest act is more transparently theatrical than usual—and the other world powers will treat it that way.