Think Again: Iran’s Missile Program

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In spite of Iran’s verified implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which has rolled back Iran’s nuclear program and subjected it to far-reaching inspections, Iran’s periodic testing of ballistic missiles has provoked substantial angst in Washington. Under UN Security Council Resolution 2231, the resolution endorsing the JCPOA, Iran is “called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons” including tests for a period that will last up to eight years. While that language does not impose a binding legal obligation on Iran, both the U.S. and other parties have criticized Iran’s missile testing as “inconsistent” with UNSC Resolution 2231, though not a formal violation.

Since President Trump entered office, his administration has rolled out eight rounds of new sanctions designations and signed new sanctions legislation into law targeting Iran’s missile program. Moreover, the President in January threatened to terminate the JCPOA unless Congress passes legislation stating “that long-range missile and nuclear weapons programs are inseparable, and that Iran’s development and testing of missiles should be subject to severe sanctions.”

Despite this flurry of activity, there have been subtle shifts in Iran’s missile program that could reduce the program’s threat. In particular, Iran’s articulation of a range limit to its missiles and a shift toward short-range solid fueled missiles signals an interest in conventional, regional deterrence, not long-range nuclear missiles.

Iran is Focusing on Short-Range Missiles Aimed at Conventional Deterrence

The commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, asserted that Iran’s missile program is limited to a 2,000 kilometer radius around Iran under a policy endorsed by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Similar statements have been issued in the past, though Jafari’s statement appears to be a firming up of prior policy and a signal to the U.S. and others regarding the relative limits of Iran’s missile ambitions.

Moreover, Iran’s testing since the conclusion of the JCPOA appears consistent with this limit. According to an analysis from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Nuclear Threat Initiative, Iran has shifted from seeking longer range systems toward short-range missiles primarily suited for conventional deterrence. According to the study:

“the JCPOA has helped redirect Iran’s priorities for its missile program away from developing an ICBM (whose only purpose would be as a nuclear delivery system), to developing solid-fueled versions of its short-range missiles. While such missiles could also be nuclear-capable, they do not extend Iran’s range or payload capabilities meaningfully, and appear intended to serve a conventional purpose.”

While a 2,000 kilometer range limit would include Israel and Saudi Arabia, in addition to numerous U.S. bases in the region, Iran’s focus on conventional solid-fueled missiles suggests they are indeed aimed at regional deterrence – as opposed to long-range missile development that could threaten Europe or the U.S. mainland. Such a shift also meshes with Iran’s signing of the JCPOA, which ensures Iran’s missile program cannot be fitted with nuclear warheads. This is a positive that could be built upon through deft diplomacy, or undermined via diplomatic sabotage.

Pressure Is Unlikely to Change, and May Even Reinforce, Iran’s Missile Calculus

Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats stated in the annual Worldwide Threats Report this week that Iran “has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East.” Yet, Iran’s competitors are not without missile inventories that match or exceed Iran’s capabilities. Saudi Arabia reportedly maintains dozens of missiles capable of striking Iran, with a maximum range of 2,650 kilometers. Israel is believed to possess both a sizable nuclear arsenal and ballistic missiles capable of traveling up to 6,500 kilometers. Moreover, Iran lacks a modern air force due to a continuing arms embargo and is outspent militarily by Saudi Arabia at a 5:1 rate.

While Iran may prove willing to negotiate over the range of its missiles or confidence building measures with other states if the JCPOA is adhered to, Iran views its missile program as a regional deterrent that is central to its national defense doctrine. Sanctions have not altered that calculus and major arms buildups among Iran’s neighbors have likely strengthened it.

Much of this doctrine stems from Iran’s experience in the Iran-Iraq war, when Iran was almost completely isolated within the region and globally as the world turned a blind eye and even aided Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks on Iran. Moreover, while Hussein was able to target missiles at Iranian cities from within Iraq, Iran had no similar deterrence or response capability. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has stated that Iran needs its missile program “to prevent another Saddam Hussein around the corner attacking us with chemical weapons because the international community has failed miserably in protecting the Iranian people.” The development of a conventional deterrent and response capability is one that has broad support within Iran across political divides. Unless the U.S. and international community engages on the fundamental issues at the heart of Iran’s missile calculus, no amount of sanctions or regional arms sales will succeed in altering it.

Iran’s Missile Testing Has Remained Sporadic

There were only a handful of confirmed reports of Iranian missile launches in 2017. These include:

  • Iran test-fired a medium-range ballistic missile January 29;
  • Iran test-fired a pair of short-range ballistic missiles in early March;
  • Iran launched eight missiles at ISIS (a U.S. enemy) on June 18 in response to a terror attack in Tehran;

While President Trump took to Twitter to allege another Iranian missile launch September 23, this report was actually based on old video of the January test. Further, while Iran test-fired a Simorgh satellite rocket July 27 amid passage of Congressional sanctions targeting Iran’s missile program, that rocket is not designed to be capable of reentering the atmosphere and thus has limited military applications.

It is noteworthy that the July 27 launch appears to be the last undertaken by Iran – a testing pause of more than six months that has extended into 2018. In roughly the same period, the U.S. Navy has reported a significant lapse in dangerous run-ins with the IRGC in the Persian Gulf. While these trends should be monitored, it appears possible that Iran is attempting to avoid giving the U.S. a pretext to sabotage the JCPOA and turn Europe against Iran.

Iran launched roughly five missile tests per year from 2006 to 2012 before nuclear negotiations involving the U.S. gained traction in 2013, according to Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Iran largely abstained from missile tests while the negotiations that led to the JCPOA were underway. Since then, the frequency of Iran’s missile tests has been largely consistent with past practices, and – barring major changes – there remains little reason to expect Iran to dramatically ramp up or seek to field a missile capable of reaching beyond the region.

To put Iran’s missile testing in perspective, the CNS-NTI report notes that North Korea tested 14 missiles capable of traveling more than 3,000 kilometers between the signing of the JCPOA and August of 2017, a feat that has not been replicated by Iran.

Transfers to Yemen?

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has taken the lead for the administration in alleging that Iran transferred missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen, which were in turn launched against Saudi Arabia. Iran has vociferously denied the claim while indicating that Houthi missile stocks were left over from prior Yemeni governments. While Russia has dismissed the Trump administration’s allegations as inconclusive, a confidential UN report has indicated that Iran “failed to block ballistic missile supplies from being used by Houthi rebels.”

Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen – with substantial military assistance from the U.S – has been heavily focused on rolling back Iran’s alleged influence there. Yet, at least at the outset of the conflict, ties between Iran and the Houthis were tenuous at best, with Houthi rebels ignoring Iran’s warnings against taking the capital Sanaa in 2014. If Iran-Houthi ties have now progressed to the point where Iranian support has enabled the Houthis to nearly strike key targets in Riyadh, it should be a clear signal to policymakers that U.S. backing of Saudi Arabia’s intervention is having the opposite of its intended effect and is endangering Saudi and regional security.

What is needed is what the Trump administration has avoided since it came into office: serious, multilateral diplomacy aimed at ending the conflict in Yemen and ameliorating all the actors’ security concerns. Absent this, the negative trend line of the war in Yemen is likely to continue, with disastrous results for the Yemeni people and regional security.

Trump is Escalating Missile Sanctions without a Serious Diplomatic Plan

Thus far, the Trump administration has continued to designate entities and individuals with ties to Iran’s missile program, while also signing new legislation into law targeting the program. Calls to subject Iran’s program to “severe sanctions” would be largely redundant, as the program is already heavily sanctioned. The administration and Congress’ actions since January 2018 include:

  • February 2, 2017 – The Treasury Department imposes sanctions on 25 individuals and entities following Iran’s January launch;
  • May 17, 2017 – The Treasury Department sanctions seven individuals and entities, including a Chinese network, for supporting Iran’s missile program;
  • July 18, 2017 – The Department of State designates two entities for supporting Iran’s missile program while the Treasury Department designates sixteen entities and individuals for supporting the IRGC;
  • July 28, 2017 – The Treasury Department imposes sanctions on six Iranian entities supporting Iran’s missile program in response to its launch of the Simorgh space rocket;
  • August 2, 2017 – The administration signs the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) into law, which mandates the imposition of additional sanctions in response to Iran’s missile program;
  • August 14, 2017 – The Treasury Department imposes sanctions on eleven entities and individuals, including one entity for supporting Iran’s missile program;
  • October 13, 2017 – The Treasury Department designates the IRGC as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT), while also designating four entities including for ties to Iran’s missile program;
  • October 25, 2017 – The House of Representatives passes H.R. 1698, the Iran Ballistic Missiles and International Sanctions Enforcement Act.
  • January 4, 2017 – The Treasury Department sanctioned “five Iran-based entities subordinate to a key element of Iran’s ballistic missile program.”
  • January 12, 2017 – In addition to sanctioning Iranian persons and entities under human rights sanctions, the Treasury Department designated persons and an entity for ties to entities sanctioned for supporting Iran’s missile program.  

In the absence of serious, direct diplomatic engagement between the U.S. and Iran, there is little possibility of changing Iran’s security calculus and no possibility of trading in sanctions for concessions on Iran’s missile activity or other concerning behavior – ensuring that the status quo remains the same or worsens, but never sustainably improves.

Moreover, while it is fair to be concerned about the potential uses of Iran’s missile program or other Iranian activity that runs counter to U.S. interests, it is important to ensure that economic pressure is calibrated and proportional. Continuing to ramp up sanctions designations and legislation at such a pace risks undermining sanctions relief obligated under the JCPOA and could harden domestic political pressure within Iran to begin hedging on JCPOA-compliance and take a more aggressive stance towards the U.S. across the region.

Instead of replacing nuclear escalation with missile escalation, the Trump administration and Congress should protect the gains of the nuclear accord and seek to build on them through serious diplomatic engagement. Failure to do so will risk the unraveling of the nuclear accord and the U.S. once again facing the threats of a nuclear-armed Iran or war.

Poll of Iranians Punctuates Points Made in Protests


Conducted after weeks of sweeping protests across the country, the latest national poll of Iranians by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland and IranPoll underscores growing Iranian discontent with the economy, Tehran’s mismanagement and corruption, disillusionment with the JCPOA and the effectiveness of international diplomacy, and increasing disapproval of the policies of the Trump White House.

When asked their opinion regarding “how good or bad our country’s [Iran’s] economic situation” was, 68.9% of Iranians believed the economic situation in Iran was somewhat or very bad, with 40.7% of all Iranians responding the state of the economy was “very bad.” This overwhelming negativity comes as little surprise to most pollsters, given unemployment rates among Iranian youth as high as 40% and the depreciation of the Rial by 25% in the past 6 months. Dr. Ebrahim Mohseni, a research scholar at CISSM, commented on the discontent among many young Iranians at a panel discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council, stating “[I]f the educated segment of the population feels they are not being utilized or are unemployed, then that becomes a severe source of discontent; both for the people who have attained the education and the people who have paid for it.”

When asked what has had the greatest negative effect on the economy, 63.3% of Iranians believed that domestic economic mismanagement and corruption,were the most responsible for Iran’s current economic issues, while only 32.1% of the population believed foreign sanctions and pressures were the most culpable.

This frustration and discontent with domestic economic policy manifested itself in the protests this January. When polled on the issue of price inflation for food products, 81.3% of Iranians strongly agreed the government should do more to prevent this issue. Likewise, 85.2% of Iranians strongly agreed with the statement that “the government should do more to fight financial and bureaucratic corruption in Iran.”

The poll also demonstrated growing disappointment with perceived lack of economic benefits from the JCPOA, and strong sentiments that diplomacy has been ineffective in achieving the country’s interests.  When surveyed on the effect of the JCPOA on people’s living conditions, 74.8% of Iranians responded that their living conditions have not improved. Regarding their opinion of the success of the JCPOA, 67.4% of Iranians supported the statement that the “JCPOA experience shows that it is not worthwhile for Iran to make concessions, because Iran cannot have confidence that if it makes a concession world powers will honor their side of the agreement.”

The poll found growing disapproval of the Trump Administration’s policies toward Iran. 60% of Iranians believe the United States has not complied with all of its promised sanctions removals, and 89% percent lack confidence that the United States will live up to its JCPOA obligations. When asked to rate President Trump’s Iran policies on a scale of 0-10 (0 being completely hostile and 10 being completely friendly), 69% of Iranians found his policies to be completely hostile, and when asked to indicate to what degree [they] held a favorable or unfavorable view of the United States government, 67% had a very unfavorable opinion.  

Also speaking at the Atlantic Council presentation on the survey was Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, founder and publisher of the online platform Bourse & Bazaar which supports Iranian “business diplomacy.” He expressed his concerns that the botched execution of sanctions relief under the nuclear deal –  by the current U.S. administration in particular – devalued the very idea of diplomacy to the Iranian people. “Sanctions, at least in the Iranian context, have been one of the most self-defeating diplomatic tools imaginable; because in their application and flawed removal, they have actually harmed the idea and the prospect of diplomacy moving forward,” stated Batmanghelidj.

When analyzing these findings, it is also vital to bear in mind potential constraints associated with conducting national polls in an authoritarian country. Dr. Mohseni acknowledged the need to phrase polling questions in a manner that those surveyed would not feel compelled to self-censor, particularly with phone interviews.

NIAC Seeks Clarification on Postal Service Rejections of Packages to Iran

Washington, DC – Connections between Iranian Americans and their family members in Iran may have hit another roadblock thanks to the Trump Administration. According to numerous complaints received by NIAC, Iranian Americans have had their shipments of personal items to Iran blocked by the U.S. Postal Service and Customs and Border Protection, apparently on the basis that the items lack sufficient approval.

NIAC is contacting relevant agencies to determine if there has been a change to U.S. policy concerning shipping mail to Iran. The rejections of such packages undercut the long-standing U.S. policy of allowing the shipment of personal gifts, remittances and other permitted items to friends and family in Iran.

In a letter sent to Census Bureau, Customs and Border Protection, and the U.S. Postal Service, we highlight that general licenses issued by the Treasury Department permit the export of gifts to Iran under the value of $100 and thus do not require separate authorization. Moreover, it clarifies that separate regulations do not appear to contradict the general license. The letter requests clarification from the agencies as to the regulatory authority under which these authorized exports to Iran are being rejected. NIAC will seek answers and conduct follow-up to resolve this issue that has affected many members of the Iranian-American community.

The text of the letters is below:

January 25, 2018

We are writing on behalf of the National Iranian American Council (“NIAC”) – the largest grassroots organization in the United States representing the interests of Iranian Americans – regarding apparent policy changes at the United States Census Bureau and/or the United States Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) concerning licensed exports to Iran.  Recently, we have received contact from a number of Iranian Americans detailing CBP and the U.S. Postal Services’s rejection of intended shipments to Iran on the grounds that such shipments lacked an “electronic export information (EEI) filing or exemption per the U.S. Census Bureau.”  In light of the fact that Iranian Americans have been able to ship licensed items to family in Iran for decades without this issue, we request clarification from the relevant U.S. authorities regarding the applicable laws and/or regulations under which this apparent new policy is being promulgated and enforced.

       As an immigrant community to the United States, many Iranian Americans retain close ties to family members and friends based in Iran.  As a result, Iranian Americans habitually send gifts, personal remittances, and other licensed items to families and friends in Iran.  For decades, U.S. policy has facilitated the shipment of such items to Iran, including via general license and statutory exemptions.  U.S. policy has sought to ensure that familial and personal ties between U.S. and Iranian persons are not undermined by the broader disputes in the U.S.-Iran relationship. Iranian Americans have thus been able to ship permissible items to Iran free from the hassle of requiring specific license authorization or other export-related filings.

       However, it appears that there has been a recent shift in U.S. policy.  Many Iranian Americans have contacted us, noting that their shipments to Iran of personal gifts, etc., have been rejected by CBP and the USPS.  This rejection apparently stems from the fact that such shipments lack a validated export license and/or an Electronic Export Information (“EEI”) filing.  As Iranian Americans whose packages have been rejected note, never before have their shipments to Iran been rejected for these reasons, and the burden of having to make an EEI filing to ship gifts to family and friends in Iran is significant enough to erode their willingness to do so.       

       It is unclear the legal basis for this recent shift in U.S. policy.  Most transactions with or otherwise involving Iran are regulated exclusively by the United States Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”), which administers and enforces a comprehensive trade and investment embargo with Iran – the prohibitions of which are promulgated via the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations (“ITSR”), 31 C.F.R. Part 560.  Due to OFAC’s primacy in Iran-related regulatory matters, “if OFAC authorizes an export or re-export [to Iran], such authorization is considered authorization for purposes of the [Export Administration Regulations] as well.”[1]  

       While the ITSR prohibits most transactions with Iran from the United States or by U.S. persons, wherever located, certain categories of transactions are deemed either exempt from the prohibitions as a matter of statute or authorized by OFAC via general license.  For instance, the export from the United States to Iran of certain information and informational materials – including, but not limited to, newspapers, magazines, films, etc. – are exempt from the ITSR’s regulations,[2] while the export from the United States to Iran of goods sent as gifts to persons in Iran are authorized via general license, provided that the value of such gifts is not more than $100 and the gifts are of such type and quantities as normally given as gifts between individuals.[3]  U.S. parties seeking to export items to Iran consistent with applicable exemptions and general licenses promulgated under the ITSR do not require specific authorization from OFAC or any other U.S. regulatory authority prior to the export of such items to Iran.

       It does not appear that regulations promulgated by the U.S. Census Bureau contradict this law.  Indeed, CBP’s own website notes that an EEI filing is required for U.S. exports in two specific cases: (1) where the value of the commodity classified under each individual Schedule B number is over $2,500; and (2) where a validated export license is required to export the commodity.[4]  While we have not received clarification from any of the relevant U.S. agencies regarding the reasoning behind their rejection of lawful U.S. exports to Iran, it appears that such exports are being rejected out of a belief that a validated export license is required to export exempt or licensed goods to Iran.  If true, that would be inconsistent with the plain language of the Census Bureau’s own regulations and would contradict long-standing practice by the relevant agencies permitting Iranian Americans to export licensed goods to Iran absent an EEI filing.

       We thus request clarification as to the regulatory authority under which the Census Bureau, CBP, and the U.S. Postal Service are rejecting authorized exports to Iran.  We trust that this issue can be resolved in a manner that is satisfactory to all relevant parties and that the relevant U.S. agencies can issue a policy statement specific to the Iranian American community regarding the laws and regulations surrounding exports of licensed goods to Iran.  Thank you for your consideration, and we look forward to your response.  


Jamal Abdi

National Iranian American Council

[1] 15 C.F.R. § 746.7(a)(2).

[2] 31 C.F.R. § 560.210.

[3] 31 C.F.R. § 560.506.

[4]CBP Info Center: When to Apply for an Electronic Export Information (EEI), United States Customs and Border Protection, last updated Sept. 29, 2017,


NIAC Statement on Trump’s Iran Deal Ultimatum

NIAC President Trita Parsi released the following statement after President Trump coupled a reissuance of sanctions waivers with new sanctions on Iran:

“President Trump’s statement today is little more than a temporary stay of execution. He has once again threatened to kill the Iran nuclear accord outright if Congress and the European Union do not go along with his demands to unilaterally change the terms of the deal in four months, including by expanding it to include Iran’s missile program and by eliminating sunsets on some of Iran’s nuclear activities. This is nothing more than a transparent attempt to seek political cover for his continuing, outrageous efforts to kill an accord that has succeeded in forestalling a nuclear-armed Iran and war with Iran. Trump’s demands are also illogical, as it threatens to expire all nuclear constraints immediately if they aren’t extended forever – a bluff that is likely to be called. Congress and our European partners should denounce Trump’s destabilizing declaration and hold firm in their refusal to negotiate on any legislation that violates the accord including through the unilateral alteration of the agreement’s terms.

“If Trump truly wanted alterations to the deal, he would recommit to the agreement as written and ensure the effective provision of sanctions relief, pledge to renew all sanctions waivers so long as Iran upholds its nuclear commitments and, lastly, engage in serious negotiations with the Iranians and other parties to the nuclear accord on the basis of ‘more for more.’ There has been no indication that Trump intends to do so. In fact, he continues to violate the accord’s commitment to implement the deal in good faith and has discouraged foreign countries from doing business with Iran.

“Targeted sanctioning of human rights violators is a positive step from a human rights standpoint. Yet, these steps  are complicated by Trump’s broader threat to re-impose sanctions in four months that would kill the deal and corresponding economic relief the Iranian people strongly desire as a means to improve their lives. Moreover, as Trump continues to ban the Iranian people from the United States, it is impossible to take Trump’s hollow expressions of support for the Iranian people seriously. You cannot simultaneously stand with the Iranian people while barring them from entering the country on the basis of their religion and national origin and sanctioning them as they protest for their economic dignity.

“Trump’s record is clear: he is no friend to the Iranian people, and he is actively violating the Iran nuclear deal while threatening to kill it outright. Congress and Europe should not provide him political cover by falling for his demands to alter the deal. If Trump wants to fix the deal, let him use the nation’s diplomats. If he wants to kill the deal, as seems likely, let him own the consequences. Congress’ attention would be better focused on demonstrating America’s true friendship for the people of Iran, including via the repeal of the unconscionable Muslim ban.”


NIAC Letter to Adobe on End User License Agreement

On December 27, 2017, the National Iranian American Council wrote Adobe Systems, Inc. expressing concern that its End User Licensing Agreement requires users of Adobe products to certify they “are not a national of Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, or any other country to which the United States embargoes goods.” As stated in the letter, NIAC is concerned that this requirement discriminates against Iranian nationals – including those in the United States – and is not required by U.S. sanctions laws.

NIAC hopes to work with Adobe to ameliorate the concerns of the Iranian-American community while adhering to existing sanctions obligations. You can see the letter as a PDF here or below:

December 27, 2017    

Mr. Jace Johnson

Adobe Systems Incorporated
345 Park Avenue
San Jose, CA 95110-2704

Dear Mr. Johnson:

We are writing on behalf of the National Iranian American Council (“NIAC”) – the largest grassroots organization in the United States representing the interests of Iranian Americans – regarding Adobe’s End User License Agreement, which appears to discriminate against nationals of Iran, including those persons who are lawfully resident in the United States. Specifically, Adobe’s End User License Agreement requires a person – prior to downloading or otherwise using an Adobe software product – to certify that they “are not a national of Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, or any other country to which the United States embargoes goods.”[1] It is our view that Adobe has a mistaken view as to the scope of current U.S. trade sanctions targeting Iran, and we hope to work with Adobe to ensure that its End User License Agreement(s) is consistent with U.S. sanctions laws and other trade restrictions and refrains from taking an overbroad view of U.S. law in a manner that discriminates against Iranian Americans.  

It is true that the United States imposes a comprehensive trade embargo with Iran – the provisions of which are codified in the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations (“ITSR”), 31 C.F.R. Part 560. Pursuant to the ITSR, U.S. persons – including Adobe – are generally prohibited from engaging in the export, re-export, sale, or supply of goods, services, or technology – including software – to Iran or the Government of Iran, absent an applicable exemption or a license authorization.[2] This includes situations where a U.S. person exports goods, services, or technology to third-country parties with knowledge or reason to know that the goods are specifically intended for re-export or transshipment to Iran. 

However, Adobe’s End User License Agreement appears to suggest that the export, re-export, sale, or supply of its software products to nationals of Iran – even if lawfully resident in the United States – is prohibited under U.S. law. That is not a correct statement of U.S. law, but instead risks discriminating against U.S. persons, particularly Iranian Americans, lawfully resident in the United States.[3] More appropriately, Adobe’s End User License Agreement should – subject to the condition outlined below – require persons downloading or otherwise using Adobe’s software products to certify that they are not downloading the product while based in Iran or intent on re-exporting or otherwise transferring the software product to parties based in Iran. 

In addition, we would also urge Adobe to consider the effect of the issuance of General License D-1, “General License with Respect to Certain Services, Software, and Hardware Incident to Personal Communications,” which authorized the export, re-export, sale, or supply of certain services, software, and hardware incident to personal communications to Iran.[4] It is our view that General License D-1 may render permissible the export, re-export, sale, or supply of many, if not all, Adobe software products to Iran and would negate the need for Iran to be included in Adobe’s End-User License Agreement at all. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter with representatives from Adobe to ensure that Adobe acts consistent with current U.S. sanctions laws and trade restrictions without taking an overbroad reading of any potentially applicable sanctions prohibitions.

We look forward to working with Adobe to address the concerns of the Iranian-American community. We appreciate your consideration and look forward to your response.

Most Respectfully,

Jamal Abdi

Policy Director, NIAC


[1] Adobe, End User License Agreement,

[2] 31 C.F.R. § 560.204.

[3] It is apparent that Adobe’s End User License Agreement is not only incorrect, but also out of date. For example, the United States no longer imposes trade embargoes on Iraq or Sudan – two of the countries identified in the End User License Agreement as embargoed countries. We would thus urge Adobe to revisit and accordingly revise its End User License Agreement to render it consistent with current U.S. sanctions laws and trade restrictions.   

[4] General License D-1, “General License with Respect to Certain Services, Software, and Hardware Incident to Personal Communications,” U.S. Dep’t of Treasury, Feb, 7, 2014,  

FAQ on Iranian Earthquake Relief

As Iranian Americans, our hearts go out to all of those who were impacted by yesterday’s tragic earthquake that struck near the Iran-Iraq border. Initial reporting indicates that it is the deadliest earthquake of 2017, with hundreds dead and thousands injured, and many more who have lost everything. Like with prior earthquakes in Iran, the recovery and rebuilding is likely to be difficult.

Given the comprehensive trade embargo on Iran, Americans are likely to have questions regarding whether they will be able to assist in recovery efforts. While there are restrictions to navigate, the Treasury Department has licensed U.S. citizens to engage in certain activities to assist relief efforts in Iran following natural disasters. Below, we have detailed a brief Q&A, which we will update as the situation unfolds and we learn more about ongoing relief efforts.

The National Iranian American Council urges the Treasury Department to closely examine whether additional steps are needed to ensure that Americans can effectively contribute to relief efforts, and to issue any additional licenses necessary to ensure that U.S. sanctions do not stand in the way of urgent relief.

Frequently Asked Questions:

I am a resident of the United States and I want to help out with relief efforts in Iran, but don’t know if I can or how I can.  How can I help out with the earthquake relief?

While the United States imposes a comprehensive trade embargo with Iran, you can lawfully engage in certain activities to help out relief efforts related to the earthquake in Iran. You can do the following:

  • You can donate food, clothing, or medicine to Iran, provided that the donations are meant to relieve human suffering and are not directed to the Government of Iran, an Iranian bank, or any other restricted parties.  
  • You can make donations to a U.S. non-governmental organization (“NGO”) engaged in the provision of humanitarian services in or related to Iran, including in relief and reconstruction efforts related to the earthquake. U.S. persons would not be permitted to send funds directly to non-U.S. charitable organizations specifically intending those funds to be used for relief efforts in Iran.
  • You can seek license authorization from the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) to engage in any other humanitarian-related activities related to the relief efforts in Iran.   

I want to help out, but am nervous about running afoul of U.S. sanctions laws.  Are there things that I definitely cannot do to support the relief efforts in Iran?

Yes. The United States imposes a comprehensive trade embargo with Iran, so most transactions between the two countries are prohibited absent an applicable exemption or license authorization. Those activities outlined above are either exempt from the trade embargo or are otherwise authorized. However, certain activities remain prohibited. For instance, the following activities remain prohibited under U.S. law:

  • You cannot send funds directly to Iranian charitable organizations absent prior license authorization from OFAC.  Such activity is currently prohibited under U.S. law and could expose you to civil or criminal liability as a result.
  • You cannot send goods or technologies to Iran to help out with relief efforts other than those that fall under the OFAC exemption or those that are licensed by OFAC.  The export of any prohibited goods or technologies to Iran is prohibited – even if such goods or technologies are intended for use in aiding relief efforts related to the earthquake in Iran.

Should I contact a lawyer before deciding to send funds or make a donation to Iran?

Because the U.S. trade embargo with Iran is exceptionally broad and prohibits most dealings between the two countries – including what would be regarded as innocuous – it is always a good idea to speak to legal counsel before engaging in a transaction in or related to Iran.  However, due to the obvious need to act expediently to help out with relief efforts in Iran at this time, it would not necessarily be unreasonable to rely on the representations of a U.S.-based NGO providing humanitarian-related services to Iran that they are acting in compliance with U.S. sanctions laws.   

I am an American and saw a fundraiser for earthquake relief efforts on social media. Should I donate?
This depends both on what the funds will be used for and the credibility of the campaign. If the fundraiser is seeking donations for an Iranian or non-U.S. charity, you should NOT donate. If the fundraiser is for a U.S. organization that is planning relief efforts in line with U.S. sanctions regulations, you can consider donating to the campaign. However, you should also consider giving to U.S.-based organizations directly rather than using a social media platform.

Which U.S. charitable organizations might be planning relief efforts in Iran?

The following U.S. organizations have responded to previous natural disasters in Iran and are planning relief efforts in response to the 2017 earthquake:

We will update this list as additional information becomes available.

European Ambassadors Defend Iran Nuclear Deal

“This agreement is a success, “ asserted European Union Ambassador to the U.S. David O’Sullivan in defense of the Iran nuclear deal on Monday. “[It] needs to be maintained, nurtured, needs to be strictly scrutinized to make sure that everyone, and that includes all the people who signed up to this agreement, deliver on their commitments in order to make sure that this global public good of nonproliferation in the Middle East region is maintained.”
With just three weeks before the Trump Administration’s decision whether to certify if Iran has been compliant with the nuclear accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Atlantic Council hosted a panel of top European ambassadors to discuss their government’s views of the pending decision.
French Ambassador Gérard Araud called renegotiating the JCPOA “a nonstarter” and reaffirmed that France is willing to engage in further negotiations with Iran regarding their activities in the region, but would not reopen the nuclear deal. “We are willing to work with our allies here and in the region to be up to the Iranian challenge,” but “walking away from the deal would have serious consequences.”
Peter Wittig, the German Ambassador, cautioned those who are discussing withdrawing from the deal against undermining the West’s credibility in future diplomatic negotiations. “What kind of signal would this send to countries like North Korea? It would send the signal that diplomacy is not reliable, that you can’t trust diplomatic agreements,” he explained. “To those who advocate to walk away from this agreement, [you] have to come up with an alternative of how to prevent, in a peaceful way, resuming of Iranian nuclear and military capabilities,” something Germany does not believe is possible.
Sir Kim Darroch of the United Kingdom highlighted how the deal makes his country safer, and that “as long as the Iranians continue to comply with it, in the view of the IAEA, we will continue to support it.” He put a particular emphasis on the fact that representatives from the UK have been speaking avidly to members of Congress regarding this deal, trying to convince their counterparts to continue to comply with the deal by explaining how it is beneficial to the national security of the UK. Amb. Darroch also told the audience how May and Trump spent nearly half of a fifty-minute long meeting discussing ways to push back on Iran’s non-nuclear behavior, though still asserted that the deal should be maintained. According to Darroch, “In a sense, this administration has changed the climate on Iran…But let’s keep the JCPOA.”
Another important aspect of the deal, particularly for the Europeans, was the normalization of trade with Iran. Should Trump choose not to re-certify the deal, Congress will have the power to re-impose new sanctions on Iran under expedited procedure, which would risk breaking the already fragile business ties Iran has started to rebuild since the sanctions were lifted last year. When asked if this would affect European companies dealing with Iran, each ambassador reiterated their commitment to the deal, expounding on how the resuming of normalized trade with Iran has helped each of their economies. “I have no doubt that if this scenario materializes, which it’s not clear it will, the European Union will act to protect the legitimate interests of our companies with all the means at our disposal,” said Ambassador O’Sullivan.
Amb. Araud reminded the audience that when the US originally imposed sanctions on Iran and forced their European allies to comply, “the burden of the sanctions has been carried by the Europeans,” who, up to that point, had enjoyed a healthy trade relationship with Iran. Now that the sanctions have been lifted, he insisted that France was merely returning to the relationship they had before, a natural result of the deal. If the situation were to devolve into a crisis, Araud said that French companies would “[base] their decision on the basis of their own calculations of their interest.”

Amb. Wittig went a step further and explained the history of Iran and German relations, dating back to the Qajar dynasty. He voiced his support for the French Ambassador’s remarks regarding the normalization of trade with Iran, and described how German companies “have suffered billions and billions and billions of dollars because we imposed sanctions [on Iran].” He believes that through the normalization of economic ties with Iran and bringing them into the international economic fold, Western power can strengthen their political with the country to improve Iran’s relationship with the rest of the world over time. “Iran is a very vibrant civil society. It’s a very young society… It’s a country with a future, and we want this Iran to gradually move to our values, to our world view.”


NIAC Statement on Apple’s Decision to Restrict Iranian-Made Apps



Jamal Abdi, Policy Director of the National Iranian American Council, issued the following statement after sending a letter to Apple Inc. raising concerns about its decisions to restrict mobile applications made by Iranian developers:

“Apple’s decision to restrict mobile apps made by Iranian developers may be an overly cautious approach to U.S. sanctions compliance that undermines U.S. interests by limiting the Iranian people’s access to technologies used for personal communication. Apple’s move has the effect of punishing the Iranian people, not Iran’s government, and only succeeds in discouraging Iran’s burgeoning tech entrepreneurs and forcing Iran’s youth back under the umbrella of government censors.

“NIAC calls on Apple and the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to take all necessary steps to ensure that Iranians are able to once again make their mobile applications available on the Apple app store.

“Today, NIAC published a letter directed to Apple, seeking an explanation of the legal basis for its move and whether Apple has undertaken efforts to receive license authorization to host Iranian apps in its App Store.  In NIAC’s view, Apple’s current policy ‘risks undermining core U.S. foreign policy interests in ensuring Iranians are able to utilize the Internet for personal communications absent the censorship of their home government.’

“Apple’s decision to remove Iranian apps is yet another indication of the deleterious impact of broad U.S. sanctions targeting Iran and impacting the Iranian people. Apple, like many other U.S. companies, have to figure out how to navigate broad, often intentionally ambiguous, U.S. sanctions, and the conclusion for many has been to exercise undue caution in ways that may undermine U.S. interests. For instance, we have seen cases where U.S. banks close the accounts of Iranian students studying in the United States, despite there being no prohibition on U.S. banks maintaining such accounts. Ultimately, because such caution is likely to persist into the future, it is incumbent on the U.S. Treasury Department to provide sufficient guidance to companies so that they do not undertake actions counter to U.S. interests.

“We trust that Apple shares our interest in encouraging young Iranian tech entrepreneurs and promoting internet freedom around the world. We hope they will respond and look forward to discussing these matters with them.”

The full letter can be found here.

Iran’s May 19 Election: A Mandate for Moderation

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Iran’s overwhelming reelection of incumbent President Hassan Rouhani on May 19 delivered a stark message to the world. The Iranian people are pushing their country in a positive direction, demanding greater openness at home and engagement with the world. It is vital that the United States not stand in their way:

Mandate for Moderation

  • More than 41 million Iranians voted in Iran’s May 19th Presidentialelection, or nearly 75% of the electorate. That figure included tens of thousands of Iranians in the diaspora. Overall, voter turnout inside and outside Iran was remarkable given the obstacles imposed by Iran’s unelected institutions.
  • The election was a 57-38% landslide for incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, and a defeat for hardliners – including the leadership of Iran’s judiciary and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – which mobilized for the conservative candidate Ebrahim Raisi. 
  • It was not just a defeat for hardliners at the Presidential level, but also in city council races throughout the country. Reformists swept all 21 seats in the capital Tehran, and are also poised to sweep council seats in other major cities, including Raisi’s conservative hometown of Mashhad.
  • For the first time in Iran’s history 6 women were elected to Tehran’s 21 member city council, and another 415 women won seats on councils in Iran’s conservative Sistan and Baluchistan provinces. In Mashhad, a woman won a seat on the city council with her campaign slogan “Let’s Vote for Women.”
  • The Iranian people sent an overwhelming message that they want to push their country in a positive direction through peaceful, indigenous change through the ballot box, not externally imposed regime change.

Implications for Policy

  • By building and maintaining the most robust political coalition in the 38-year history of the Islamic Republic, Rouhani has solidified a significant power base. Unlike past Presidents with a reformist agenda, he has been more pragmatic and may now be able to make good on his promises to reform human rights at home and broaden his international engagement, though ill-advised U.S. policies will almost certainly undercut his agenda.
  • Theelection was a referendum on the benefits of the Iran deal, further diplomacy with the West, social freedoms at home, and even the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). 
  • Critically, Rouhani floated the possibility of pursuing negotiations to lift all sanctions on Iran, which would necessitate further U.S.-Iran diplomacy on sensitive issues including state sponsorship of terrorism and the war in Syria.
  • Rouhani went so far as to publicly criticize the IRGC, which is overseen by Khamenei, for undermining Iran’s economic benefit under the nuclear deal by test-firing ballistic missiles with anti-Israel rhetoric.
  • Prior to theelection, Rouhani’s challenger Ebrahim Raisi was considered a top contender to replace the aging Khamenei as Supreme Leader. After defeating Raisi, Rouhani has burnished his credentials for the critical, and potentially transformational, role.

Will the U.S. miss this opportunity?

  • This could be a major turning point and opportunity. If the U.S. is serious about addressing Iran’s role in the region and curbing its missile program, it must work to engage rather than undercut Rouhani’s moderate coalition and the millions of Iranians who voted for greater openness and engagement.
  • It has not been lost on Iranian society that, in spite of mobilizing to vote for moderation, Donald Trump was in Saudi Arabia showing solidarity with unelected monarchs who have a history of ties to terrorism and spreading radical ideology throughout the Muslim world. 
  • Trump’s call to isolate Iran, as well as Tillerson’s unilateral demands in the wake of theelection, were a slap in the face to the Iranian people who voted for Rouhani as a way of extending Iran’s hand to the international community. Congress must not be so reckless as to assist Trump in wasting an opportunity to reduce mutual tensions with Iran and stand in the way of the Iranian people pushing their country in a positive direction.


NIAC Statement on Trump Administration’s Iran Sanctions Designations

Press Release



The National Iranian American Council issued the following statement on the Trump administration’s imposition of new sanctions on Iran following its ballistic missile test:

“The Trump administration is following a dangerous escalatory path with Iran without any diplomatic approach or exit strategy. It’s far easier to provoke crises on Twitter than to de-escalate them. A real diplomatic channel with Iran is needed to maximize U.S. national security.

“While the Trump administration’s designations are consistent with actions previously taken by the Obama administration in that they do not appear to violate the nuclear accord, the Obama administration had established channels for de-escalation and had conducted extensive relationship building with their Iranian counterparts. That enabled the previous administration to pressure Iran without risking a crisis that could spiral out of control. The Trump administration has not done so, and does not appear interested in doing so. Sooner or later, given the numerous tensions with Iran around the region, this escalatory dynamic risks spiraling into war.

“The Trump administration and Congress now need to hold their fire. No amount of sanctions designations will convince Iran to part with a missile program it believes  is vital to its defense doctrine, particularly when Iran is vastly outspent militarily by rivals like Saudi Arabia and is being threatened by a superpower in the United States.

“While the Trump administration seems to put a premium on the security of Saudi Arabia – a key source of funding for Jihadi terrorist organizations like ISIS and Al-Qaeda – it does not lie in the interest of the United States to be dragged into a war with Iran on behalf of the Saudi kingdom.

“Moreover, we have seen sanctions result in escalation previously, as well. After recent designations under the Obama administration, Iran directed its military to expand its missile development in defiance to the United States.

“If the Trump administration steps away from threats and hostile rhetoric, it could find Iran willing to discuss key security issues. However, by leading with bombast and threats, it is undercutting the vital work from the previous administration to build some trust and move away from a collision course toward war.”


The New Playbook to Kill the Iran Nuclear Deal

Under the Obama administration, Iran hawks have been free to attack the Iran nuclear deal without fear that they would actually succeed in violating U.S. commitments – and triggering consequences from an unfettered Iranian nuclear program to an all out war. No matter what they proposed – from “tearing the deal to shreds” to blocking promised sanctions relief, they knew Obama would block them from translating their rhetoric into policy. But with this dynamic set to end in January under the Trump administration, many of the fiercest critics of the nuclear deal are suddenly warning against killing it directly. Instead, they are leaning in favor of an indirect approach of escalating pressure on Iran, including through sanctions with a “non-nuclear” label, in hopes of driving Iran to quit the agreement. While this approach might appear more attractive at first glance, it in fact carries the same risks of the U.S. unilaterally violating the agreement.

If Trump moves to snap back sanctions in blatant violation of the accord while Iran is upholding it, the international coalition that has enforced sanctions against Iran would fracture, and Iran would be free to withdraw from its obligations and advance its nuclear program. With a divided international community, the U.S. would have little diplomatic leverage with its spurned partners – let alone Iran – leaving only dire military options. Hence, those critics suddenly cautioning about the dangers of backing out of the deal include Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN), who has stated “I don’t think [Trump] will tear it up and I don’t think that’s the way to start.” The President of the hawkish United Against Nuclear Iran, David Ibsen, has also warned “You don’t want all the blame for the deal falling apart to land on the U.S.”

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Policy Memo: Understanding U.S. Sanctions-Related Obligations Under the JCPOA

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It is an elemental condition of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”) –- the nuclear accord between the United States, other major world powers, and Iran – that the U.S. ensure that Iran receives the full benefit of the lifting of sanctions under the nuclear agreement. Most U.S. observers, however, have adopted a false belief that the U.S.’s JCPOA obligations begin and end with the formal lifting of sanctions outlined in Annex II of the JCPOA. Such a view misunderstands the scope of U.S. commitments under the JCPOA and risks inhibiting the Obama administration from taking the steps required to faithfully implement the U.S.’s sanctions-related obligations. It undermines ongoing efforts to remedy problems related to the lifting of sanctions and threatens the ultimate sustainability of the nuclear accord.

This memo serves as a much-needed corrective at a time in which U.S. implementation of its JCPOA obligations has come under question. It is our view that a more appropriate reading of U.S. obligations under the JCPOA evidences a U.S. commitment to not just formally lift all nuclear-related sanctions, but also to prevent any interference with Iran receiving the full benefit of the sanctions-lifting and to ensure that Iran has access in areas of trade, technology, finance, and energy. This is a much broader view of the U.S.’s JCPOA commitments than commonly understood in Washington, but it is one that is nonetheless faithful to the text of the JCPOA and central to the sustenance of the nuclear accord. Understanding the proper scope of U.S. sanctions-related obligations is thus key to cementing the decades-long restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program.          

US Sanctions-Related Obligations

Most observers regard the U.S.’s primary commitment under the JCPOA to involve the formal lifting of U.S. nuclear-related sanctions outlined in Annex II of the JCPOA. While the lifting of such sanctions is indeed a fundamental commitment of the United States, it is far from the only U.S. sanctions-related obligation. The Main Text of the JCPOA and its preambular paragraphs, often ignored by proponents and opponents of the JCPOA alike, outline the full scope of U.S. sanctions-related obligations. These obligations can be broken down into three constituent (and equally valuable) parts:

1)    Lift all nuclear-related sanctions outlined in Annex II of the JCPOA;

  • Prevent any interference with Iran receiving the full benefit of the sanctions-lifting and with the normalization of trade and economic relations consistent with JCPOA; and
  • Take affirmative steps to ensure Iran’s access to trade, finance, energy, and technology.

Each of these obligations merit reflection, particularly as observers have failed to appreciate the latter two elements of the U.S.’s sanctions-related commitments in ways detrimental to the administration’s efforts to resolve lingering concerns. An understanding of the full range of U.S. sanctions-related JCPOA obligations provides appropriate context for recent (and prospective) actions by the administration to ensure full implementation of the JCPOA.

Lifting the Sanctions

It is a fundamental commitment on the part of the United States to lift all of the sanctions outlined in Annex II of the JCPOA, including sanctions inhibiting Iran’s access to finance, energy, trade, and technology. Section 4 of Annex II spells out in specific detail the sanctions that are to be lifted under the nuclear accord – whether via use of the President’s waiver authorities; the termination of Executive orders; or the rescission of U.S. sanctions designations.[1]  , and to license both the import into the U.S. of Iranian-origin carpets and certain foodstuffs and transactions by U.S.-owned or –controlled foreign entities (i.e., foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies) involving Iran otherwise prohibited by 31 C.F.R. § 560.215.[2] Together, the lifting of such sanctions constitute the most elemental condition for which Iran agreed to decades-long restrictions on its nuclear program.  

The Obama administration has faithfully implemented these commitments in full. On Implementation Day, the day on which Iran fulfilled its initial nuclear-related obligations, President Obama waived the imposition and application of certain sanctions, revoked certain Executive orders, and rescinded the designations of hundreds of Iranian and non-Iranian entities and individuals, as required.[3] Moreover, the U.S. issued licenses for the import of Iranian-origin carpets and foodstuffs and for U.S.-owned and –controlled foreign entities to re-engage in transactions involving Iran.[4] Currently, the U.S. Treasury Department is working with aircraft manufacturers to determine the license conditions for the sale and export of commercial passenger aircraft to Iran.

Preventing Interference with Iran’s Full Benefit 

Under the JCPOA, the United States is obligated to take certain affirmative steps and to refrain from taking other measures in order to ensure that Iran receives the full benefit of the lifting of U.S. nuclear-related sanctions. Few observers, though, have taken adequate note of these commitments, which are central to the JCPOA and explain the Obama administration’s outreach to the global banking and business communities.

First, the United States is committed to refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions targeting Iran or re-imposing the sanctions lifted pursuant to Annex II of the JCPOA.[6] There has been some debate over the scope of this latter provision, particularly whether it would prohibit the U.S. from re-imposing the lifted sanctions on non-nuclear grounds. While the Obama administration has been less than clear as to how it interprets the relevant JCPOA commitment, the fairest reading of paragraph 26 of the JCPOA would indeed bar the United States from re-imposing the lifted sanctions on a pretext separate from Iran’s nuclear program. In other words, for example, the United States could not re-designate certain Iranian financial institutions under Executive Order 13382 – including its major state-owned banks –  , as that would constitute the effective re-imposition of the sanctions lifted as part of the JCPOA. Evidencing this point, paragraph 26 of the JCPOA notes that Iran would view the re-imposition of sanctions lifted under the nuclear accord as an abridgment of U.S. obligations and would thus cease its own nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA as a result.

It is no secret that Congressional opponents of the nuclear accord are seeking to push the Obama administration to publicly adopt a narrow interpretation of this provision, so as to permit Congress to re-impose sanctions on Iran’s financial institutions on pretextual non-nuclear grounds. While the administration has not adopted a broader reading of this provision, it is clear that such a narrow reading would lead to the effective collapse of the JCPOA, as Iran’s benefit under the JCPOA would be nullified insofar as the same sanctions lifted would be re-imposed under a new pretext. This would fatally undermine Iran’s incentive to continue complying with the terms of the JCPOA.

Besides refraining from re-imposing the sanctions lifted under the JCPOA, the United States is also obligated to “refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran inconsistent” with the nuclear accord.[7] It is due to this provision that high-level U.S. officials have stated that the United States will no longer stand in the way of legitimate business activities with Iran – a subtle but significant change in U.S. policy towards Iran. This provision obligates the U.S. to do more than to refrain from legislation aimed at undermining U.S. commitments, but also to ensure that no federal government policies are designed to undercut the benefit to Iran of its nuclear bargain. Pursuant to this provision, for instance, Iran has complained that passage of a new visa law subjecting business travelers to Iran to a heightened standard of review is intended to adversely affect the normalization of trade and economic relations between Iran and the European Union – a complaint that made it into the United Nations Secretary General’s recent report on UNSCR 2231.  

In tandem with this, the United States also committed “to prevent interference with the realization of the full benefit by Iran of the sanctions lifting specified in Annex II.”[8] Effectively, the U.S. is obligated to ensure that no measures of its own are standing in the way of Iran reaping the full benefit of the sanctions-lifting under the JCPOA. For purposes of illustration, because the JCPOA lifted sanctions on correspondent banking relationships between non-U.S., non-Iranian financial institutions and certain Iranian financial institutions, the United States is committed to ensuring that neither U.S. law nor policy is standing in the way of non-U.S. banks resuming correspondent banking relations with their Iranian counterparts. If U.S. laws or policies are interfering with Iran realizing the full benefit of the lifting of sanctions on Iran’s financial institutions, then the U.S. is required to take steps to ensure that those laws or policies no longer are running such interference. To do so could require additional changes to U.S. laws or policies governing the issue.

Taking Affirmative Steps to Ensure Iran’s Benefit 

Besides preventing interference with Iran receiving the full benefit from the JCPOA’s sanctions-lifting, the United States is also committed to take certain affirmative steps to ensure that Iran does receive practical value from the lifting of sanctions.

Most immediately, the United States is obligated to   Importantly, there is no time-limit under which this obligation ends, meaning that the U.S. is committed through the duration of the nuclear deal to ensure that parties interested in undertaking legitimate business activities involving Iran have a clear understanding as to the scope and application of the sanctions-lifting under the JCPOA. It is this commitment that explains in part the Obama administration’s robust efforts to engage with the international business community – including via a global roadshow – in order to respond to persistent questions and concerns regarding the lifting of sanctions under the nuclear accord.

Beyond the issuance of guidance, however, the U.S. is obligated to lift certain additional nuclear-related sanctions should such sanctions be “preventing the full implementation of the sanctions-lifting [under the JCPOA].”[12] This is an issue that arose during the recent controversy over whether the U.S. would license U-turn transactions – a transaction in which Iran would have limited but effective access to U.S. dollar-clearing facilities – due to the fact that global banking institutions have signaled their reluctance to re-engage their Iranian counterparts so long as Iran’s access to the U.S. dollar is effectively prohibited. While the common wisdom is that re-authorizing the U-turn license would be an unwarranted concession to Iran – above and beyond the express terms of the JCPOA – few understand that the U.S. does have an express obligation to consult with Iran in order to resolve outstanding banking issues and that such consultation could lead to the lifting of the prohibition on U-turn transactions. Far from being alien to the nuclear accord, the licensing of U-turn transactions would have been consistent with U.S. obligations to lift additional sanctions that stand in the way of the effective implementation of the JCPOA.

Even further, the U.S. is also committed to “agree on steps [with Iran] to ensure Iran’s access in areas of trade, technology, finance, and energy.”[13] It is not enough for the U.S. to formally lift sanctions, to issue relevant regulatory guidelines to ensure effective implementation, or even to prevent interference with Iran receiving the full benefit of the lifting of sanctions: the United States also has an affirmative obligation to agree on steps with Iran that are designed to ensure Iran’s access to trade, technology, finance, and energy. This means that should Iran not be able to access the global financial system due to the reluctance of major global banks to re-engage their Iranian counterparts, the U.S. is obligated to take certain agreed-upon steps to ensure such access for Iran. This is a far-reaching obligation deliberately tailored to ensure that Iran receives practical value from the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions.      


Despite the formal lifting of U.S. nuclear-related sanctions, implementation of U.S. obligations under the JCPOA has not proceeded altogether smoothly. In order to safeguard the decades-long restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, the U.S. must faithfully observe its JCPOA sanctions-related obligations in full. To do so, though, there must be a common understanding as to the full scope of those U.S. sanctions-related commitments. Failing this, the Obama administration (and its successors) will be inhibited from taking the action required to address ongoing problems related to the lifting of sanctions. This could endanger the long-term viability of the nuclear accord in a manner that puts at risk core U.S. national security interests.

[1] The scheme of Annex II of the JCPOA underscores the argument that U.S. obligations go beyond the mere formal lifting of sanctions. While § 4 of Annex II spells out the precise sanctions to be lifted pursuant to the JCPOA, § 7 of Annex II outlines the “effects of the lifting of U.S. economic and financial sanctions.” If the U.S.’s JCPOA obligations were indeed limited to the mere formal lifting of sanctions, then § 7 of Annex II would be a superfluity. Interpretive rules dictate that we not treat such provisions as superfluities.    

[2] JCPOA, Annex II, § 5.1.

[3] Implementation Day occurred on January 16, 2016.

[4] See, respectively, 31 C.F.R. §§ 560.534 and 560.535, as well as General License H.

[5] JCPOA, Annex V, § 21.

[6] JCPOA, Main Text, ¶ 26.

[7] JCPOA, Main Text, ¶ 29.

[8] JCPOA, Main Text, ¶ 26.

[9] JCPOA, Main Text, ¶ 27.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] JCPOA, Main Text, ¶ 24.

[13] JCPOA, Main Text, ¶ 33.