A Dilemma of a Deal

As the June 30 deadline for a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program draws ever nearer, the question of sanctions relief remains an important sticking point. The White House has promised to lift only nuclear-related sanctions against the Islamic Republic in exchange for an agreement, while keeping others (relating to terrorism and human rights) in place. But it’s not at all clear that it can do so. And it’s even less certain that Iran will accept such a minimalist approach, or whether it will refuse to sign a deal unless all sanctions are eliminated at once.

The core of the problem is that it is exceedingly difficult to parse which sanctions apply only to Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and which apply to other aspects of its rogue behavior. A recentCongressional Research Service study noted that the “U.S. sanctions to be suspended are mostly those imposed since 2010,” such as the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010. But that act was imposed because of the threat posed by “the illicit nuclear activities of the Government of Iran, combined with its development of unconventional weapons and ballistic missiles and its support for international terrorism.” In all, terrorism is mentioned in the act no fewer than 32 times. Section 102 of the act, for example, deals with mandatory sanctions levied on financial institutions that engage in activity that supports terrorism – a sanction that there is no plausible reason to lift under a strictly nuclear deal.

The Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012  is another sanctions bill slated for partial suspension under the impending nuclear deal with Tehran. But isolating the purely nuclear-related aspects of this law is difficult. Take, for example, Section 211 of the act, which imposes sanctions on shipping or transportation of goods “related to proliferation or terrorism activities to Iran.” Presumably, terrorism-related shipments would still be banned after June 30 (or whenever a deal with Tehran is signed). Similarly, the act’s Section 215 bans transactions “relating to terrorism or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” something that should also remain in force where terrorist support is concerned.

And what to make of its Section 217, which only allows lifting sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran if it can be certified that it is not engaged in financial activity that helps Iran develop nuclear weapons, chemical or biological weapons, ballistic or cruise missiles, destabilizing conventional weapons, weapons of mass destruction delivery systems and supporting Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and international terrorism? Clearly Iran’s state bank has a long way to go before it can receive a clean bill of health.

The Iran Freedom and Counter-Proliferation Act of 2012 is likewise problematic. Section 1244 of that particular piece of legislation imposes sanctions on Iran’s energy, shipping and shipbuilding sectors for “facilitating the Government of Iran’s nuclear proliferation activities.” But the financial institutions dealing with them are called out for “Iran’s proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or delivery systems for weapons of mass destruction; Iran’s support for international terrorism; [and] Iran’s abuses of human rights.” Section 1245, meanwhile, places sanctions on those who deal in precious metals and other materials if, among other things, the material is used in “any sector of the economy of Iran … controlled directly or indirectly by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps” or “used in connection with the nuclear, military, or ballistic missile programs of Iran.” Here, too, parsing exactly which measures are to be rescinded is likely to prove maddening.

Finally, the crippling sanctions on Iran’s financial and oil sectors contained in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act are also presumably to be lifted as part of the new deal. But those measures were primarily imposed because Iran posed “terrorist financing, proliferation financing, and money laundering risks for the global financial system.” The 2012 authorization act designated the financial sector of Iran as “a primary money laundering concern … because of the threat to government and financial institutions resulting from the illicit activities of the Government of Iran, including its pursuit of nuclear weapons, support for international terrorism, and efforts to deceive responsible financial institutions and evade sanctions.” Nuclear weapons are only mentioned in passing; this could hardly be called a “nuclear sanction.”

Given the complex and interconnected nature of the various sanctions the United States has levied on Iran to date, it is critical for the White House to make clear exactly which sanctions are eligible for relief under the proposed nuclear deal – and provide a rationale for why this is the case. After all, Iran has made no effort to curtain its support for terrorism, slow the pace of its ballistic missile development or improve its horrific human rights record. It only stands to reason that it should not be rewarded for things it has not done.

  • James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, and author of “The Real Custer: From Boy General to Tragic Hero.”

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