Memo: Consequences of Sanctions Snapback on Iran

Not satisfied with withdrawing from the Iran nuclear accord, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”), the Trump administration intends to start sanctioning foreign parties that seek to comply with the terms of the international agreement. As outlined by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”), the Trump administration will begin re-imposing those sanctions lifted pursuant to the JCPOA on August 7, 2018 and continuing up until November 4, 2018, at which time all formerly lifted sanctions will be re-imposed on Iran.

Because such U.S. sanctions primarily target foreign parties transacting or otherwise dealing with Iran, the Trump administration will be actively undermining efforts by the international community to act consistent with the JCPOA and ensure its survivability. This includes, most dramatically, undermining efforts by foreign countries and entities to take those measures identified in the JCPOA to reduce or eliminate the risk of nuclear proliferation in Iran. This move is a dangerous gambit that pits the U.S. in opposition to the rest of the world—including the U.S.’s closest partners and allies—and risks re-invigorating nuclear proliferation efforts in Iran.

Considering the dramatic consequences for U.S. national security and foreign policy interests, the Trump administration should not be given free reign to plunge the United States into a confrontation with its closest allies and partners — such as those in Europe — and risk a new war in the Middle East. Congress should assert its own constitutional prerogatives and ensure that the Trump administration acts consistent with long-standing U.S. policy objectives, including those related to nuclear non-proliferation. This could include, for instance, legislative measures to restrain the Trump administration from abrogating the JCPOA or sanctioning foreign parties seeking to comply with the terms of the nuclear accord. At the very least, Congress should hold hearings to adjudicate the potential negative consequences of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and undo the global consensus in favor of the diplomatic agreement aimed at restraining Iran’s nuclear program.

Re-Imposition of U.S. Sanctions Lifted Under the JCPOA

Beginning August 7, 2018, the Trump administration will take steps to re-impose those U.S. sanctions lifted pursuant to the JCPOA. In its initial phase, this will include the immediate re-imposition of sanctions on:

  • The purchase or acquisition of U.S. dollar banknotes by the Government of Iran;
  • Iran’s trade in gold or precious metals;
  • The direct or indirect sale, supply, or transfer to or from Iran of graphite, raw, or semi-finished metals such as aluminum and steel, coal, and software for integrating industrial processes;
  • Significant transactions related to the purchase or sale of Iranian rials or the maintenance of significant funds or accounts outside the territory of Iran denominated in the rial;
  • The purchase, subscription to, or facilitation of the issuance of Iranian sovereign debt; and
  • Iran’s automotive sector.

By November 4, 2018, the United States will re-impose all remaining sanctions targeting Iran that had been lifted pursuant to U.S. commitments under the JCPOA. This will include the re-imposition of sanctions on:

  • Iran’s port operators and shipping and shipbuilding sectors;
  • Petroleum-related transactions with the National Iranian Oil Company, Naftiran Intertrade Company, and the National Iranian Tanker Company, including the purchase of petroleum, petroleum products, and petrochemical products from Iran;
  • Transactions by foreign financial institutions with the Central Bank of Iran and designated Iranian financial institutions;
  • The provision of specialized financial messaging services to the Central Bank of Iran and certain Iranian financial institutions;
  • The provision of underwriting services, insurance, or reinsurance; and
  • Iran’s energy sector.

In addition, the Trump administration intends to re-impose those sanctions that applied to persons removed from OFAC’s List of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (“SDN List”) and other U.S. sanctions lists pursuant to U.S. commitments under the JCPOA. This includes, for instance, the re-imposition of sanctions on most of Iran’s financial institutions, including the Central Bank of Iran.

Undermining International Compliance with a Successful Nonproliferation Agreement

The re-imposition of U.S. sanctions will pose immense difficulties for other major world powers’ compliance with the terms of the JCPOA.  Failure by the remaining JCPOA participants to fulfill the terms of the nuclear accord will prompt Iran to abandon some or all of the JCPOA’s limitations on its nuclear program, thus risking renewed proliferation efforts in Iran and threatening a new war in the Middle East.   

Pursuant to the JCPOA, major world powers — including Europe, Russia, and China — agreed to take steps to ensure effectiveness relating to the lifting of national and international sanctions. These commitments were geared towards ensuring that Iran received practical economic benefit from its agreement to maintain long-term restrictions on its own nuclear program. The JCPOA obligated all parties to take adequate measures “to ensure . . . effectiveness with respect to the lifting of sanctions under th[e] JCPOA” and committed JCPOA participants to “agree on steps to ensure Iran’s access in areas of trade, technology, finance, and energy.” The JCPOA was envisioned as an effective quid pro quo, whereby Iran agreed to long-term limitations on its nuclear program in return for practical economic benefits — including the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions — from major world powers.  

The re-imposition of U.S. sanctions, however, will risk the compliance of remaining JCPOA participants, as Europe and other JCPOA parties will have grave difficulties ensuring “effectiveness” with respect to the lifting of sanctions under the JCPOA. For instance, while the European Union and its respective states intend to continue the lifting of national and Union-wide sanctions targeting Iran–consistent with the JCPOA–European companies and persons will nonetheless remain subject to U.S. secondary sanctions targeting their own transactions or dealings with Iran.

The most notable consequences in this respect will be oil and banking transactions. To the extent that Iran is unable to export its oil and repatriate its oil revenues, the JCPOA will become a moot agreement, as Iran is highly unlikely to continue its adherence to limitations on its nuclear program while deriving no practical economic benefit from the nuclear accord. Re-imposed U.S. sanctions expressly target foreign banks — including foreign central banks — and foreign parties engaged in transactions related to the import of Iranian-origin oil. The Trump administration has sent conflicting signals as to whether it will grant exemptions to foreign countries importing Iranian-origin oil — including China, Europe, India, Japan, and South Korea. Similarly, to the extent that Iran’s financial institutions are isolated from the global financial system and unable to reconnect to foreign banks to process trade-related and other transactions, the Iran nuclear deal will not survive. Re-imposed U.S. sanctions will re-designate most Iranian financial institutions for sanctions and render foreign bank dealings with such Iranian financial institutions as sanctionable, thus expressly targeting foreign countries’ compliance with the nuclear accord.

Sanctioning Beneficial Work at Arak and Fordow

Pursuant to the JCPOA, Iran agreed to convert its enrichment facility at Fordow into a research center absent of proliferation risk. To do so, however, Iran required international collaboration, including in the form of scientific joint partnerships in agreed areas of research. In addition, the JCPOA required Iran — as part of an international partnership — to redesign and rebuild a modernized heavy-water reactor in Arak that would drastically reduce its potential output of plutonium.

However, these measures aimed at reducing the risk of nuclear proliferation in Iran are under serious threat, as re-imposed U.S. sanctions render sanctionable conduct by foreign parties with respect to Iran’s nuclear program. For instance, the Trump administration has stated that it will re-impose those sanctions that applied to persons removed from OFAC’s SDN List pursuant to the JCPOA. This appears to include the re-designation of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (“AEOI”) — the body responsible for Iran’s nuclear program — pursuant to Executive Order 13382. By designating the AEOI pursuant to E.O. 13382, entities that provide or attempt to provide financial, material, technological, or other support for, or goods or services in support of, the AEOI would be exposed to U.S. sanctions and risk designation under E.O. 13382 themselves. Foreign parties participating in an international partnership with the AEOI — consistent with the JCPOA — to convert the Arak nuclear reactor into a reactor absent of proliferation risk would thus be engaged in sanctionable conduct, as such parties would be prima facie engaged in the provision of material support to the AEOI  — thus meeting the criteria for designation under E.O. 13382.  

In addition, the U.S.’s re-designation of the AEOI pursuant to E.O. 13382 will render foreign financial institutions that facilitate significant transactions for or on behalf of the AEOI — including transactions consistent with the terms of the JCPOA — exposed to U.S. sanctions under § 104(c)(2)(E) of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act (“CISADA”) and § 1247 of the Iran Freedom and Counter-proliferation Act (“IFCA”). Such financial institutions would risk being cut off from the U.S. financial system and would thus be unlikely to facilitate transactions involving the AEOI, even if such transactions are consistent with the JCPOA and reduce the risk of proliferation in Iran.  

In the Trump administration’s zeal to kill the Iran nuclear deal, the administration will perhaps fatally undermine efforts to ensure the conversion of Iran’s nuclear facilities into facilities absent of proliferation risk, thus gravely undermining U.S. and regional security.

The Need for Congressional Intervention

The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and its re-imposition of U.S. sanctions targeting Iran risks splitting the United States irrevocably from its historical allies and partners, including those in Europe; threatens to undermine the future use of economic sanctions to secure national security and foreign policy objectives; and encourages the reinvigoration of nuclear proliferation risks in Iran. Such consequences implicate critical U.S. national security and foreign policy interests and warrant increased oversight over the administration’s actions.

Congress should be involved in any decision implicating U.S. national security and foreign policy interests. In this case, Congress should assert its own prerogatives in the realm of foreign policy and resume U.S. compliance with the JCPOA, including, but not limited to, the continued lifting of U.S. sanctions as obligated under the nuclear accord. Absent such a dramatic measure, however, Congress should seek to restrain the President from re-imposing those U.S. sanctions lifted under the JCPOA and should at least limit the damage re-imposed U.S. sanctions could cause to the transatlantic alliance between the United States and Europe. If the U.S.’s historical allies and partners in Europe believe that their own national security interests demand their continued compliance with the JCPOA, then the Trump administration should be restricted from imposing sanctions on European companies engaged in commercial trade with Iran that is permissible under European law.

Shockingly, Congress — which held numerous hearings on the U.S.’s assent to the JCPOA — has proven unwilling to conduct significant oversight regarding the potential consequences inherent in the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and its re-imposition of U.S. sanctions targeting Iran. In failing to assess the risks and dangers associated with the Trump administration’s actions, Congress has rendered itself incapacitated on an issue of critical import to U.S. national security. Following midterm elections, Congress should reassert its prerogatives in the field of national security and ensure that the Trump administration is not able to undermine long-standing U.S. foreign policy objectives — including the objective of nuclear non-proliferation — through its rash decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear accord and re-impose those U.S. sanctions lifted under the JCPOA.


¹ Other U.S. sanctions may be applicable to transactions involving the AEOI and incident to the fulfillment of the terms of the JCPOA, including, for instance, menu-based sanctions on foreign parties that sell, supply, or transfer to Iran graphite, raw, or semi-finished metals such as aluminum and steel, coal, and software for integrating industrial processes, if the material is sold, supplied, or transferred for use in connection with Iran’s nuclear program. Section 1245(a)(1)(C) of IFCA does not distinguish between those transactions aimed at converting Iran’s nuclear facilities into facilities absent of nuclear proliferation risk and is thus likely to counteract international efforts to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation in Iran.  

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