Editor's Picks

Deterrence backed diplomacy

Congress passes law without Obama’s signature to extend the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996 for another decade

Iran Sanctions Act - Photo by Reuters (Courtesy of Google)

The Iran Sanctions Extension Act, initially introduced to the United States House of Representatives in November of this year, has officially become law as of December 15, 2016.  The Act reauthorizes the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996 and extends the sanctioning power of the United States government for another decade.  Before this extension, the sanction powers under the 1996 Act were to terminate on December 31, 2016.  The Extension Act passed in the House by a vote of 419-1 and was subsequently passed by the United States Senate by a vote of 99-0. When the bill was presented to President Barack Obama on December 2, 2016, he refused to sign the bill in an act of procedural protest.  Due to the overwhelming majority vote in the House and unanimous vote in the Senate, the bill was veto-proof and became law without the President’s signature.

After the Islamic Revolution and the American Embassy hostage crisis in 1979, diplomatic ties with the United States were severed and United States opposition to the Iranian nuclear program grew throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Beginning in the 1950’s, Iran has pursued nuclear energy technology.  Iran first received assistance from the United States through President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program in 1957, which supplied Iran with resources for research into peaceful uses of nuclear energy.  Iran signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968 and ratified it in 1970, claiming that its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes and agreeing never to become a nuclear weapon state.  With continued support and assistance from the United States and other Western powers, the Iranian nuclear program was a steady process throughout the early 1970’s.  This progress came to a halt in the late 1970’s with opposition to nuclear technology from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and with the withdrawal of Western support and supplies as a result of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.  After the Islamic Revolution and the American Embassy hostage crisis in 1979, diplomatic ties with the United States were severed and United States opposition to the Iranian nuclear program grew throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Though originally created to allow Iran to pursue peaceful civilian nuclear energy, Iran’s nuclear program is a subject of international concern as world powers believe that Iran is seeking to build a nuclear bomb.  Suspicion has grown as Iran has allegedly violated treaties, resolutions, and agreements and has been enriching uranium at rates much higher than necessary.  The possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon capability has been perceived to present a threat not only to the United States and Israel but the international system as whole.

The international system is anarchic in nature.  The states that make up the international system all possess individual sovereignty and there is no international governing body that can compel compliance from any particular state.  Faced with this reality, states employ different methods in order to force compliance from adversarial states or groups whose actions are adverse to their own foreign policy.  One of these methods is economic sanctioning, which is often employed despite mass debate over its effectiveness.  Economic sanctions are a foreign policy tool meant to force political change by harming the economy of another nation or group.  Until the enactment of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015, economic sanctions have been the primary tool used by the international community against Iran to deter acquisition of nuclear weapons.

The Iran Sanctions Act of 1996… gives the President of the United States the power to impose economic sanctions.

The Iran Sanctions Act of 1996 was passed with the stated objective of “preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and acts of international terrorism” by denying Iran financial assistance and restricting the country’s ability to develop petroleum resources.  The Act gives the President of the United States the power to impose economic sanctions on Iran for developing their petroleum infrastructure, attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and/or supporting international terrorism.  The President also has the power to impose sanctions on any persons, groups, or nations that significantly contribute to the enhancement of Iran’s development of petroleum resources or weapons of mass destruction through financial assistance, information, goods, services or technology.  Along with the power to impose sanctions, the President has the power to terminate or waive sanctions in cases where doing so is necessary to the national interests of the United States.  The types of sanctions that are authorized under the 1996 Act include: credit and bank assistance sanctions, export sanctions, prohibition of loans from United States financial institutions, procurement sanctions, foreign exchange sanctions, prohibition of banking or property transactions, and import sanctions.

Iran’s economy has also been damaged by sanctions imposed by the United Nations and the European Union (EU).  Four rounds of sanctions have been placed on Iran by the United Nations Security Council through resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008), and 1929 (2010) in response to Iran’s refusal to end uranium enrichment and cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency.  These sanctions ban the supply, sale, or transfer of nuclear or ballistic missile related materials and technology to Iran and freezes assets of key individuals and companies related to the nuclear program.  Resolution 1929 executes the harshest round of sanctions on Iran including a ban on Iran from participating in any activities related to ballistic missiles, a complete arms embargo, travel bans on individuals associated with the nuclear program, limits on states interactions with Iranian financial institutions, as well as the freezing of funds and assets to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines.  The European Union has imposed its own sanctions on Iran in concern of its growing nuclear program since 2010.  The sanctions severely limit EU cooperation with Iran in foreign trade and financial services as well as in travel and energy sectors.

As Iran’s banking system has been cut off from much of the world and its oil export market has been cut drastically, the economy is suffering terribly.  The effects of sanctions on Iran have been isolated to economic impacts instead of the intended political effects.  Though the sanctions have damaged Iran’s economy, they have caused catastrophic humanitarian consequences as well as harbored discontent toward Western nations.

Shortcomings in sanction based policies combined with an increasing willingness on behalf of moderate Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to reach a multilateral resolution led the United States to shift their policy approach to diplomacy. In 2015, after extensive discussions and negotiations, Iran and the United States, along with China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the European Union, reached a historic agreement and established the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).  The JCPOA was established to allow Iran to pursue nuclear power for peaceful purposes, i.e. for energy and medical purposes.  To meet their obligations under the agreement and in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions, Iran must keep uranium enrichment levels low, reduce nuclear stockpiles, redesign nuclear reactors, and allow access by international inspectors to any nuclear sites.

The [Iran Sanctions] Extension Act has prompted a negative reaction from the Iranian government.

In January of 2016, the New York Times reported that in accordance with the agreement, “the United States and European nations lifted oil and financial sanctions on Iran and released roughly $100 billion of its assets after international inspectors concluded that the country had followed through on promises to dismantle large sections of its nuclear program.”  Since the agreement has been implemented and sanctions have been lifted, the International Atomic Energy Agency has reported that Iran stands in compliance with the JCOA and Iran continues to insist that the aims of their nuclear program are peaceful.

The Iran Sanctions Extension Act coupled with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is an attempt on the part of the United States government to continue to pursue diplomatic interactions with Iran while keeping sanctions in their back pocket as a back-up tactic for accountability purposes.  By passing the Extension Act, the United States is not imposing any new sanctions on Iran or re-imposing any of the old sanctions that were lifted earlier this year.  Instead, the government is ensuring that the United States has the ability to quickly re-impose sanctions if Iran were to violate its obligations under the JCPOA.

The Extension Act has prompted a negative reaction from the Iranian government.  Iran views the Act as a violation of the United States’ obligation under the JCOA and President Rouhani has since ordered the development of a nuclear-powered system for ships.  In response to Iranian hostility, the White House issued a statement that the Obama “administration has made clear that an extension of the Iran Sanctions Act, while unnecessary, is entirely consistent with our commitments in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. ”  The future of US-Iranian diplomacy in light of the JCOA and the Iran Sanctions Extension is uncertain as President-elect Donald Trump promised during his campaign to take a tougher approach on policy with Iran.  As allowed under the Iran Sanctions Act and continued through the Extension Act, the power to re-impose sanctions will lie in the hands of the United States President.  In a matter of weeks, President-elect Trump will possess the power to deliver on his promises and potentially bring an end to the nuclear deal, but doing so would mean opposing large political pressure.  Altering or terminating the JCOA or imposing new sanctions could prompt Iran to violate any of their obligations under the agreement.

Cydney Joyner
About Cydney Joyner (13 Articles)
Cydney Joyner is a third year law student and serves as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer. She is originally from Winston-Salem, NC. She attended undergrad at Salem College, a women's college in Winston-Salem, where she studied Political Science, International Relations, and Religion. During the summer following her first year of law school, she worked at the Buncombe County District Attorney's Office in Asheville, NC. Her legal interests are criminal law, international law, and constitutional law. This summer Cydney is interning at the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of NC in Asheville.