U.S. envoy Brian Hook's latest travels aimed at extending a U.N. arms embargo on Iran through a prospective Security Council resolution criticized by veto-wielding world powers are raising questions about why the U.S. is pursuing such a step and what it will do if the diplomacy fails.
Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran, ended a week of international travels Wednesday, meeting with British officials in London after talking with officials in Tunisia, Qatar, Kuwait and Estonia to seek support for a U.S.-sponsored U.N. resolution extending Iran's arms embargo.
There was no word from the U.S. State Department about what was discussed or agreed to in Hook's talks in Britain and Estonia, the final two stops of his international tour.
All five nations that Hook visited are U.S. allies or partners. Three of them - Britain, Estonia and Tunisia - have seats on the 15-member U.N. Security Council. Britain, one of five permanent members, has veto power as does France, Russia, China and the U.S. France also is a U.S. ally, while Russia and China are longtime rivals of Washington.
In a July 15 press briefing in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. is "not that far away" from introducing a draft Security Council resolution to extend an Iran arms embargo that expires on October 18. The expiration is part of Council resolution 2231 that approved Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
The U.S. would need at least eight other council members to approve a draft resolution in order for it to become legally binding on U.N. members. It also would need to avoid any other permanent members such as Russia and China casting "no" votes that would veto the resolution. Russian and Chinese diplomats on the council signaled they could take such a step last month when they criticized the U.S. proposal as putting undue pressure on Iran, with whom their nations have longstanding military and economic ties.
Under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, world powers granted Iran sanctions relief and other concessions such as an October 2020 end to the U.N. arms embargo in return for an Iranian pledge to limit sensitive nuclear activities that could be diverted to making nuclear weapons.
President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018, saying the deal his predecessor, Barack Obama, signed was not tough enough on Iran. Trump also started unilaterally tightening U.S. sanctions as part of his policy of putting "maximum pressure" on Iran to end perceived malign behaviors.
Washington's European allies have said they share U.S. concerns that letting the U.N. arms embargo expire could fuel what they see as Iran's destabilizing activities in the Middle East. Tehran has armed proxy militias in the region for years in order to expand its influence.
But European powers also have expressed unease about U.S. actions that could prompt Iran to abandon the 2015 nuclear deal, which they continue to support to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear bomb.
Iran, which denies seeking nuclear weapons, has suggested that it could quit the nuclear deal if the arms embargo is extended. In May, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned of "dangerous consequences" from such a move.
Despite Russian and Chinese criticism and European ambivalence toward a prospective U.S.-drafted U.N. resolution, U.S. officials keep pursuing it to build multilateral support for their broader "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran, said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran analyst with the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
"The U.S. needs to be seen as trying to work through international institutions to extend the embargo," Taleblu said in a VOA Persian interview.
In his news briefing this month, Pompeo said that if the U.S. cannot convince other world powers to keep the arms embargo in place until Iran changes its behavior, the U.S. will consider triggering a reimposition, or snapback, of all U.N. sanctions that were lifted from Tehran under Security Council resolution 2231.
Iran and other critics of the Trump administration have argued that the U.S. cannot trigger a snapback because it withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal. The Trump administration has countered by saying it retains a legal ability to do so under the terms of resolution 2231.
Henry Rome, an Iran analyst with New York-based political risk advisory company Eurasia Group, told VOA Persian that triggering a U.N. sanctions snapback appears to be another U.S. objective in pursuing a Security Council resolution that faces a prospect of failure.
"We saw a similar dynamic in early 2018 before Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal, with Hook trying to get agreement from the Europeans to strengthen that deal," Rome said. "Hook made a fair amount of progress, but ultimately the Trump administration disregarded it and withdrew. So, there is a healthy amount of skepticism that (Hook's latest diplomacy) is an earnest effort to extend the arms embargo."
Rome said the U.S. could pursue alternatives to a snapback in case the U.N. arms embargo on Iran is not extended. He said those include trying to seek agreements with China, Russia and other countries to restrict their arms sales to Iran, and unilaterally imposing sanctions on nations making such weapons sales in defiance of U.S. objections.
Taleblu said one problem with recruiting nations to accept a code of conduct on restricting arms sales to Iran is that it would lack the enforcement power of a U.N. Security Council resolution. He said relying on unilateral sanctions against weapons exporters also would be problematic because Chinese or Russian manufacturers could try to skirt such sanctions by bartering with Iran or delaying Iranian payments for the weapons.
"Unilateral U.S. sanctions and international agreements to restrict arms sales to Iran are a necessary but not sufficient part of what should be a larger policy of denying Iran conventional weaponry as long as it remains the world's foremost state sponsor of terrorism," Taleblu said. "Security Council resolution 2231, which made the U.N. arms embargo on Iran time sensitive, was a negotiating mistake that Washington should now fix."
This article originated in VOA's Persian Service.