Web of Sanctions Complicates US-Iran Deal

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Negotiators from the US and Iran are restarting indirect talks on Iran's nuclear program in Vienna this week against a backdrop of renewed tension: after a weekend strike on Iran's Natanz nuclear facility that was attributed to Israel, Iran pledged to increase its uranium enrichment to 60% (IOD Apr.13'21). The discussions will center on whether the US will offer sanctions relief similar to the relief it extended under the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran would also need to return to compliance with the nuclear-related components of the deal, which saw the country’s oil output rise to nearly 4 million barrels per day before former President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the deal in 2018. Why Can’t the US and Iran Just Go Back to the JCPOA? Trump prioritized tough action against Iran, and he sanctioned Iranian organizations both before and after the US withdrawal from the deal. Simply reversing the "nuclear-related" sanctions would not be sufficient to provide economic relief to Iran because some Iranian companies and government agencies are sanctioned under multiple pathways. Particularly difficult for Iran’s oil sales are those sanctions imposed under counterterrorism authorities against the Central Bank of Iran, National Iranian Oil Co. and National Iranian Tanker Co, according to an Atlantic Council report. US policymakers are aware of this issue, and the US is ready to lift all sanctions that are "inconsistent with the JCPOA and inconsistent with the benefits that Iran expects from the JCPOA," a senior State Department official said last week. But that doesn’t mean the US is prepared to lift any sanctions that took effect under Trump -- potentially a stumbling block if Tehran insists on lifting new measures. Iran might take issue, for example, with sanctions remaining against its Revolutionary Guard, which is currently targeted with measures under human rights, nonproliferation and terrorism authorities. None of those were waived to implement the JCPOA, as a recent Congressional Research Services report notes. Would Removal of Sanctions Be Permanent? Those who are skeptical that the US can offer Iran enough comfort on sanctions argue that Congress is very unlikely to vote to overturn the nuclear sanctions first laid out by lawmakers in 2012 -- and so any deal offered won't be adequate. This ignores the fact that sanctions were not "permanently" removed under the 2015 JCPOA. Instead, the Obama administration used its authority to suspend them. At any rate, a US president has wide sanctions authority, and even if Congress did overturn the legislated sanctions, nothing stops current President Joe Biden or a future president from putting them back in place. What Is the Role of the US Congress? It is largely political. Sanctions might be mandated by Congress, but it's the president who implements them and decides whether to waive sanctions, issue licenses or designate groups as terrorists. Congress carved out an oversight role for itself in the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA). That gives Congress the authority to reject a deal from the president, but lawmakers effectively need a two-thirds majority to do so. The Biden administration would likely argue that re-entering the JCPOA doesn't amount to a new agreement, insulating a so-called "compliance-for-compliance" deal from the direct oversight. Lawmakers for now have a political role to play, pressuring the Biden administration with letters and hearings, and possibly later with proposed legislation if they don't like the way things are going. Could We See an Incremental Deal? Iran has talked about wanting "verification" of US sanctions relief, raising the question of whether the US might take an initial step of issuing waivers for some importers of Iranian crude as proof that the system can work. But such an incremental approach risks triggering additional congressional oversight, says Brian O'Toole, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "One of the challenges that this administration has is anything that looks like an interim agreement could be subject to INARA, and therefore a congressional review and vote." Avoiding fresh congressional action could constrain the types of offers that the Biden administration puts on the table. Emily Meredith, Washington

Security Risk , Sanctions
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