Most of the coverage of the “snapback” debacle at the U.N. has focused on the fact that the U.S. cannot use this provision because the Trump administration reneged on the agreement over two years ago. That is appropriate for understanding why the U.S. has run into so much strong opposition at the U.N. and why U.N. sanctions will not be reimposed. It’s also essential to recognize that the U.S. doesn’t want Iran to return to full compliance, but hopes to drive it out of the agreement entirely. But it is also important to understand that there is a simpler and more legitimate way to bring Iran back into full compliance with the JCPOA: the U.S. could rejoin the agreement, end the economic war against Iran, and honor its commitments. Iran has said it would fulfill all of its obligations under those conditions, and once they receive sanctions relief there would no longer be any need for them to protest over lack of sanctions relief. The fact that the U.S. refuses to take this much easier path tells us everything we need to know about this issue.
Iran hawks pretend to care about Iran’s reduced compliance now because they hope to use it as a pretext for dynamiting the JCPOA by reimposing U.N. sanctions. The other parties to the deal can see through this clumsy ruse, of course, and they aren’t going to cooperate in destroying an agreement they support. Watching this ruse in action is a useful reminder of how Iran hawks argue and act in bad faith all the time. They howled about the JCPOA in the beginning because they said Iran would cheat with impunity. That didn’t happen, so they changed their attack. When Iran fully complied with the agreement, they howled that the agreement was too easy on them. When the administration reneged on the deal and reimposed U.S. sanctions, Iran was still in compliance for more than a year, so Iran hawks kept agitating for more provocations to make them stop complying. Then when Iran finally began to reduce compliance last year in protest over this treatment, Iran hawks started howling about the problem they had caused as a reason to put even more pressure on Iran. Then they whine when no one else takes their howling seriously.
Sanctions cannot and will not salvage the JCPOA. On the contrary, reimposed sanctions are why the agreement has been in jeopardy for the last two years. Piling on even more sanctions will not cause Iran to return to full compliance. It would deprive Iran of the last shred of any hoped-for benefits and leave them little choice but to abandon the agreement. It was because of reimposed sanctions that Iran reduced its compliance, which had been consistent and complete up until last year. The only reason to threaten Iran with more punishment is if you want them to reject the JCPOA and possibly withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in the hopes of creating a crisis that could lead to an illegal and unjustified war. That is why Iran hawks hated the JCPOA at the start, and that is why they have been trying to kill it ever since. That is what is at stake.