The head of Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Selhi (R) looks over paperps before meetings at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel March 28, 2015 in Lausanne

April 22, 2015

Complexities of Iranian Sanctions Relief

The head of Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Selhi (R) looks over paperps before meetings at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel March 28, 2015 in Lausanne. (Reuters)

The release of the detailed framework agreement with Iran over its nuclear program has properly begun a discussion about its technical merits, verifiability, and general desirability.  There’s another issue that clamors for careful and immediate scrutiny, however:  what about the rest of the sanctions?  The agreement says that “nuclear-related sanctions will be suspended” and UN Security Council resolutions “on the Iran nuclear issue” will be removed, but that US sanctions “for terrorism, human rights abuses, and ballistic missiles will remain in place.”  So which sanctions will be lifted and which will stay?  It’s not obvious, actually, but it is very important.  Congress and the White House must sort out this question rapidly to ensure that the counter-pressure against Iranian support for terrorism and suppression of its own people survives this limited, compartmented agreement.

The US Treasury Department has imposed sanctions on Iranian individuals, entities, ships, and planes under no fewer than nine different Iran-specific programs in addition to general sanctions such as Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designations.  A quick review of the Treasury Department list of sanctioned entities turns up around 830 related to Iran under one or more of these programs.  About 125 of those are sanctioned under one of the terrorism or human rights programs that the framework agreement says will remain in place.  They are not insignificant:  the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Qods Force, the Iranian Law Enforcement Forces, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and the Basij Resistance Force, as well as the commanders of all of those organizations.  These groups comprise just about the entire Iranian security apparatus apart from the conventional military.

A number of important Iranian businesses also remain subject to non-nuclear-related sanctions, including: DATAK Telecom (for its role in suppressing the protests after the 2009 presidential election), Bank Saderat, the Lebanon branch of the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, the Iranian Committee for the Reconstruction of Lebanon, Mahan Air, Liner Transport Kish, Behnam Shahriyari Trading Company, and Pouya Air (all for providing support to terrorist groups).

Insisting on continued sanctions against these groups and individuals should be straightforward.  But what about some of the entities sanctioned under the 2010 enhanced sanctions act (CISADA)?  These sanctions are generally viewed as having been focused on the nuclear issue, but the text of the legislation and the Treasury Department’s interpretation of it make it clear that things are more complex than that.  The act states that, because of the IRGC’s involvement “in Iran’s nuclear program, international terrorism, and domestic human rights abuses,” the President should sanction “any individual or entity that is an agent, alias, front, instrumentality, representative, official, or affiliate” of the IRGC and “any individual or entity that has conducted any commercial transaction or financial transaction” with such a person or organization.  The Treasury Department cites the US Federal Code of Regulations to explain that sanctions apply to a person or organization that helps the Iranian government, the IRGC, or any of the IRGC’s “agents or affiliates” either with the nuclear program or to support terrorist organizations or acts of international terrorism.  That covers a lot of ground.

Those conditions clearly apply to Bank Sepah, for example, which is the official bank of the IRGC.  Bank Melli was also sanctioned both for facilitating Iran’s nuclear program and forfinancing the IRGC and the Qods Force.  A host of Iranian organizations were sanctioned under the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, including the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Company, the Iranian Cyber Police, and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.  That act required the designation of entities that eitherfacilitated Iran’s WMD program or were involved in human rights abuses or international terrorism, so the Treasury Department was not required to distinguish clearly and in all cases all of the provisions of relevant legislation that might cause an entity to be listed.

Similar complexities afflict the EU and UN sanctions regimes, and the US will need to lean forward to work with its allies and partners to ensure that those sanctions are also unwound in ways that keep the non-nuclear-related sanctions in place.

The lifting of “nuclear-related” sanctions promised by this agreement will be no easy task—if it is done in good faith and in accord with the text and intent of the laws imposing those sanctions.  The US government will have to review a large number of sanctioned entities to determine which should remain sanctioned under terrorism or human-rights designations and which were only sanctioned because of their involvement in the nuclear program.  Congress should insist on an accounting of that review and its results.  President Obama will presumably support such a review.  After all, he is the one signing the agreement committing the US and Iran to continuing all non-nuclear-related sanctions in force.