Sanctioning Iran while preserving the JCPOA
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As someone characterized as part of the Iran Deal “echo chamber” in 2015, many might anticipate that I would oppose the sanctions against Iran presently being developed in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.  But, with modifications and in the right context, the bills being developed in the House and in the Senate may actually point the way for the kind of approach to sanctions against Iran that preserves and advances the common cause of JPOCA proponents and skeptics alike.  

Though sometimes lost in the public debates of 2015, the United States neither gave away all of its sanctions leverage over Iran in the JCPOA nor did it lose the right and the ability to impose targeted measures against Iran for actions incompatible with the JCPOA or outside its aegis. Under the JCPOA, what was agreed is that we would exchange nuclear relief for sanctions relief, offering Iran the promise of some economic renewal and securing for the United States the relief of Iran being unable to produce a nuclear weapon undetected and in less than a year.

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The Iranians accepted that Iran’s reemergence into the global economy would be hampered so long as concerns over terrorism, human rights, and so forth remained.  They knew that the United States would retain the right to use sanctions, albeit in more limited form than prior to the JCPOA.  
 
Under President Obama, the United States exercised that right time and again, and using many of the same sanctions that JCPOA skeptics once dismissed but, under Trump, now herald as the start of a new, effective Iran policy.  What Obama did, though, was to oppose sweeping new sectoral sanctions that would deprive Iran of the benefits it was to receive as part of the nuclear deal and, as a result, risk Iran reversing course and restarting the expansion of its nuclear program.

Recognizing the very real threat such a development would pose, the House and Senate bills now under consideration would largely preserve the Obama-era approach. Modifications to the bills are necessary, particularly the Senate bill’s sweeping, mandatory sanctions on activities with Iran that “pose a risk” of contributing to Iran’s missile program, its mandatory terrorism designation of the IRGC (which adds nothing to the sanctions already in place against the IRGC but which military analysts fear could pave the way for retaliation against U.S. forces in the region), and language that could prejudice the ability of the U.S. to terminate in time some sanctions designations covered by the deal. These changes do need to be made to make the bill JCPOA compliant.  But, by and large, both bills take the approach of imposing targeted sanctions for specific bad acts.  They will engender caution in international businesses, but perhaps not outright fear.  Iran will benefit economically, but lagging due to its policies.

What is missing now is a reaffirmation that the objective of the United States is not to undermine the JCPOA.  Both the White House and the Congress should state clearly, publicly, and in advance of any movement of this legislation that the JCPOA is working and merits protection and implementation.  The legislation should reflect this specifically and in the construction of its waiver provisions.  U.S. sanctions experts at the State and Treasury Departments should be authorized to continue conversations with international businesses and banks about how to take advantage of JCPOA relief within the sanctions regime, and to give assurances that – so long as Iran fulfills its commitments – the rug will not be jerked from under their feet.   Absent this reaffirmation, it would be a mistake to move the bills and certainly to sign them into law. 

Iran’s hardliners are desperate for the United States to walk away from the JCPOA and looking to capitalize on U.S. missteps.  Though they may profit in the short term due to the control they exert over the Iranian economy (made possible in part because of the exigencies imposed by sanctions), economic openness is seen by hardliners as a wedge through which political change may one day be pursued.  Domestic Iranian efforts at reform are based in large part on demonstrating success being attained via access to the international economy.  Instead of granting perverse relief to our opponents in Tehran by doubling down on a “hostile” policy, we should avoid chest thumping and grandstanding, including in sanctions form.  For example, an aggressive sanctions approach to the IRGC that harms the JCPOA will do the IRGC’s work for it.  Tehran won’t scrap the IRGC because it has been designated or targeted.  The United States cannot sanction it into oblivion.  Its role can only be curtailed by showing that, particularly in the economic space, its involvement does more harm than good.  We should impose some limited, targeted sanctions to be sure; abandoning sanctions altogether for fear of offending the Iranians eases the pressure on the system to resolve the contradictions in Iran’s own policies and government management.  But, we must tailor our measures in a way that makes the necessity of reform easier to argue and keeps the pressure on the IRGC and on Iran where it counts: at home.

We must proceed carefully, sensibly, and with a measure of respect for the needs and requirements of our adversary, our partners, and our own national security.  After all, if the JCPOA is damaged or lost, we lose something as well.  Far from being something Iran should be grateful for getting, the JCPOA is delivering value to the United States.  For the first time in a generation, U.S., Israeli, and Gulf Arab national security thinkers can imagine a Middle East in which the near term risk is not Iranian nuclear weapons acquisition.  In today’s Middle East, that is a win worth preserving. 
 
Richard Nephew was the lead sanctions expert for the U.S. team negotiating with Iran from 2013-15 and before that served as Director for Iran on the National Security Council staff. He is now a Fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.