August 5, 2015 | Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs

The Implications of Sanctions Relief Under the Iran Agreement

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Some sanctions-related portions of the Iran deal are quite strong, though they are not crystal clear in the agreement itself and for reasons unknown the administration has not taken the opportunity to make these clear to the public.  But others present fatal flaws which, if refined, could make a negotiated settlement with Iran over its nuclear program far more likely to succeed.

“Snap Back”

Several problems are fairly evident and have already received some attention, including the deeply flawed “snap back” mechanism.  In the first instance, even if the snap back mechanism works as a means of avoiding multilateral debate over whether to re-impose sanctions, and which to re-impose, there will be no quick snap back since the international debate will simply move to what constitutes a violation, whether the action in question really qualifies as a violation, and then whether it is worth putting the whole deal at risk over such small issues.

Moreover, while the U.S. may have flexibility in the unilateral sanctions in chooses to snap back into place, it is not clear from the language of the deal that such nuance exists regarding international sanctions.  And since re-imposing U.N. and European sanctions would upend the deal, there is a built in disincentive to snapping them back.  Moreover, Iran is sure to cheat on the deal—a point administration officials concede—but it will take only small steps over the line at a time.  The snap-back mechanism is poorly suited to deal with small violations because when the only sentence available is capital punishment, only capital crimes will be prosecuted.  Privately, administration officials maintain that the thirty day notification period would allow time to convince Iran to cease whatever violations were raised, and claim that this time could also be used to negotiate a partial sanctions snap back.  That, however, is not at all clear in the text of the deal.

And while it is true that the U.S. can demonstrate all kinds of nuance in deciding which of its own, unilateral sanctions to re-impose, this puts the sanctions onus specifically on the United States instead of maintaining the international sanctions coalition built over the past decade.  Iran has worked hard to find ways of chipping away at this international consensus, and in this agreement, as it stands, it has succeeded.  In the future, the response to small-scale Iranian violations of the deal could very well be met by U.S. sanctions alone, assuming the administration is willing to act on its prerogative of re-imposing unilateral sanctions.

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