12 May 2015

Removing sanctions against Iran—creatively

Navid HassibiTom Sauer

Navid Hassibi

Hassibi is a non-resident fellow with the Washington, DC-based Nuclear Security Working Group, and a PhD candidate with the Research Group in International Politics at the University of Antwerp in...

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Tom Sauer

A former research fellow at Harvard University's International Security Program...

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As marathon talks on the Iranian nuclear program resume, the timing and manner in which the international community might lift the sanctions against Iran will increasingly come to the fore, particularly because of the players’ conflicting views of the situation. Since reaching a political framework agreement last month, officials involved in the negotiations have made starkly contradictory statements regarding sanctions relief. Indeed, the latest round of discussions in New York focused on the adoption of a UN Security Council resolution that would sort out the differences among the P5+1—the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany—and Iran on the lifting of sanctions.

Originally, the United States insisted that the sanctions be removed gradually, in a phased approach, although President Obama indicated his openness to creative solutions that would be “more acceptable” to Iran’s many different political constituencies. He also stressed that his priority was to create a system for re-imposing punitive measures if Iran is found to be non-compliant: a so-called “snap-back provision” that would not be subject to a veto by other members of the UN Security Council. US officials are now softening on gradualism, and indicating that somewhat swifter relief from US sanctions may be possible once Iran complies with the initial parts of the deal.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, however, has insisted that all sanctions be removed immediately once a deal is reached, a call echoed by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Pivoting off of these statements, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told an audience at New York University two weeks ago that within a few days of a final agreement, the UN Security Council should lift all UN sanctions, with no snap-back provision.

One possible formula for addressing these conflicts on sanctions relief involves delaying the implementation of any comprehensive agreement. In other words, the parties could sign a comprehensive agreement on June 30—the current deadline for a deal—but not begin putting it into effect for 60 to 90 days. Delayed start dates are common in arms control agreements. For example, the November 2013 interim Joint Plan of Action that set the stage for negotiations took effect 60 days later, in January 2014. Similarly, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty entered into force approximately six months after it was signed. 

If properly structured, such a delay could help address the concerns of the United States, Iran, and other parties to the negotiations, and even allow for US congressional review—something that was not contemplated when the Iranian negotiations first began. To accommodate differences relating to a sanctions snap-back provision, however, even a delayed agreement would also have to include some method for resolving disputes about whether Iran is or is not living up to its commitments.

How delayed implementation might work. If the P5+1 and Iran reach a comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, the agreement would have to be codified into a UN Security Council resolution more or less immediately. If the negotiating countries were to opt for delayed implementation, however, such a resolution would call for any unilateral nuclear-related sanctions against Iran to be removed in 60 to 90 days, once implementation of the comprehensive agreement begins. (It could also simultaneously rescind previous UN resolutions sanctioning Iran for its nuclear program, thereby resolving another sticking point.)

Delaying implementation would work well for Iran; it could use the two- or three-month interim period to make any preparations or modifications to its nuclear facilities needed to begin fulfilling its commitments under the agreement. Indeed, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif stated that it would only take a few weeks for Iran to comply with the initial parts of a deal. This approach would satisfy both Iran’s position that sanctions be removed on the first day of an agreement and the United States’ initial goal of a gradual approach to lifting sanctions—although it would admittedly call for the United States to consider 60 to 90 days as “gradual.”

Delaying implementation by two or three months could also accommodate a bill that recently passed the US Senate and calls for the Obama administration to formally submit the comprehensive nuclear agreement to Congress, at which point the president would be barred from waiving sanctions for 30 days while Congress reviews it. According to this bill, sponsored by Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, if lawmakers pass a resolution disapproving the agreement, sanctions must remain in place for an additional 12 days. If the president then vetoes the disapproval resolution, the sanctions must stay in place for another 10 days before he can begin waiving them. If the final deal is not submitted to Congress by July 9, the review period for legislators will be extended from 30 to 60 days. In a worst-case scenario, the president could be unable to waive sanctions for a maximum of 82 days—a period that would fit well with a 90-day delay in implementation of a nuclear accord.

Needed: a dispute-resolution mechanism. In addressing the ability to snap sanctions back into place, the P5+1 and Iran are purportedly considering a dispute-resolution mechanism—or a joint commission—that would aim to settle disagreements about the performance of the nuclear deal. Such a commission could be made part of an agreement that included delayed implementation.

Joint commissions in arms control agreements are nothing new. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is supported by a bilateral consultative committee intended to ensure  compliance and implementation. Likewise, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty established a special verification commission for implementation and compliance purposes—although the group has not yet convened to address the latest allegations of Russian treaty violations. In the case of an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, the contours of the joint commission would be formally arranged and agreed to in the same UN Security Council resolution that endorses the nuclear deal.

To satisfy all sides, the joint commission would need to make it easy to re-impose sanctions should Iran fail to keep up its end of the bargain. This means that the road towards snapping sanctions back into place would have to be quick and efficient (to satisfy Western concerns), not pre-programmed or at the mercy of any one particular member of the commission (to satisfy Iranian concerns), and not able to bypass a UN Security Council veto (a Russian and Chinese concern).

The joint commission would examine reports and evidence of non-compliance supplied by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). If Iran is found to be not in compliance, then the joint commission would refer the matter to the UN Security Council through a unanimous vote of the P5+1 for sanctions considerations. By voting unanimously, the permanent veto-wielding members of the council will have essentially agreed to re-impose multilateral nuclear-related sanctions against Iran and to refrain from vetoing such action.

Should the P5+1 members in the joint commission fail to unanimously refer the matter to the Security Council, the United States and the European Union could still snap their respective unilateral sanctions back into place—and the sanctions of these two entities have been among some of the most potent and economically crippling in the history of nuclear-related sanctions.

Sanctions relief shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. As others have noted, Iran may be highly motivated to abide by the terms of a nuclear agreement. At least, there are strong indications of such motivation, including Iran’s compliance with the interim agreement, the level of seriousness that country has brought to the negotiating table, and the significant economic benefits Iran will enjoy if it adheres to a comprehensive agreement. 

In the coming weeks, however, negotiators must work to develop innovative solutions that deal with the possibility of Iranian noncompliance and the subsequent reinstitution of sanctions. Creative and feasible options do exist. Something as simple as an agreement to delay implementation of an accord by a few months could help conclude the longstanding nuclear dispute, potentially ushering in a new era of relations with Iran.