Undoing sanctions

The AP has just broken the story by Bradley Klapper and Matt Lee regarding the prospective unraveling of the sanctions regime in its entirety. Their story is “US finds peeling back the Iran sanctions onion no easy task.” It’s an important story and Omri Ceren has written to comment on it as follows:

There’s a lot going on in this piece, it’s 1,100 words, and it gets highly technical very early. But it’s also functionally an exposé of how the Obama administration is going to shred the entire sanctions regime despite having promised lawmakers the exact opposite, and so the story will rightly be driving the discussion for the next couple of days at least.

Background — Throughout the P5+1 negotiations, but especially since Lausanne, the Obama administration has declared to lawmakers and reporters that the final deal will only lift nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. The talking point was a huge part of their immediate post-Lausanne media strategy. The April 2 factsheet they circulated stated “U.S. sanctions on Iran for terrorism, human rights abuses, and ballistic missiles will remain in place under the deal.” Since then the assurance has become even more central to their media strategy. It’s the overarching argument they use to respond to Congressional and Arab worries that the nuclear deal will empower Iran to become a regional hegemon capable of threatening American national interests and global security. The precise wording differs from presser to presser and interview to interview, but it’s usually something like ‘our problems with Iran go way beyond the nuclear issue, and in the aftermath of a deal we will continue to pressure them on human rights, terrorism, their conventional military activities, and so on.’

AP scoop #1 – admin is going to roll back non-nuclear sanctions — The lede is blunt: “the Obama administration may have to backtrack on its promise that it will suspend only nuclear-related economic sanctions.” The story reveals that sanctions that were imposed on Iran to block illicit finance and ballistic missile development will also be rolled back. 23 out of 24 currently sanctioned Iranian banks will be delisted, including the staggeringly crucial Central Bank of Iran. There’s no way to credibly spin delisting the CBI as nuclear-related relief. The CBI is government owned and – as the AP article notes – was designated as a primary money laundering concern because the Iranians use it for financing terrorism, ballistic missile research, and campaigns aimed at bolstering the Assad regime in Syria. Secondary sanctions that prevent other countries from flooding Iran with cash will also be removed.

The result, per the article, will make “it easier for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and its police, intelligence services and paramilitary groups to do business.” It’s a 180 degree reversal of years of administration assurances that the Iranians would only get nuclear-related relief, and that sanctions relating to Iran’s non-nuclear military and terror-related activities would remain. In a broader context, it means the final deal will give Iran hundreds of billions of dollars to do what they want, while dropping restrictions might have prevented them from using the money to fund their ballistic missile program, global terror activities, or regional proxy wars.

AP scoop #2 — the administration pushback — Here’s where things get very strange very quickly. Everybody agrees the administration committed to rolling back only nuclear-related sanctions. Everybody now agrees the administration will also be lifting sanctions on things like ballistic missile development. But Obama officials told the AP that they’re not backtracking because… if you think about it, almost all sanctions are sort of nuclear related in a way. The key graf from the AP story reads: “Officials say the administration can meet its obligations because of how it interprets nuclear sanctions. For example, they say measures designed to stop Iran from acquiring ballistic missiles are nuclear-related because they were imposed to push Iran into the negotiations. Also, they say sanctions that may appear non-nuclear are often undergirded by previous actions conceived as efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program.”

This is gaslighting. It’s just not true. It’s just not how things happened. Of course Congress has imposed sanctions on Iran over its nuclear work, but lawmakers also imposed sanctions over the funding of conventional IRGC activities, human rights abuses, global terrorism, ballistic missile development, and a range of other activities. The Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 was about nuclear issues, but also separately about terrorism, ballistic missile development, and non-nuclear WMDs (the very first provision is the sunset provision and involves Presidential certification; the first requirement has zero to do with nuclear work and is entirely about international terrorism; the second requirement separates out nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons from ballistic missile technology and requires certification on all of them). In 2011 Treasury identified the entire country of Iran as a jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern, which is an illicit finance issue. That finding was then cited at the top of the 2011 Kirk-Menendez amendment to the 2012 defense authorization bill, which was about terrorism….

To believe that ballistic missile sanctions are nuclear sanctions you’d have to believe that Congress never tried to impose sanctions because of all of the other things that Iran can put on top of their ballistic missiles. That’s just not how the laws read. The claim isn’t even defensible in the context of the current round of Iran negotiations. If anything it’s less defensible. The interim JPOA and the final JCPOA have never treated ballistic missiles as a nuclear issue and they’ve always distinguished between ballistic missile sanctions and nuclear-related sanctions. There’s no debate about this:

— The JPOA by design froze all Iranian nuclear-related activity, but there were zero restrictions on ballistic missiles.
— The JPOA prohibited the United States from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions, but in April 2014 the Treasury Department issued new designations related to Iranian ballistic missile procurement activities.
— Again, the April 2 Lausanne factsheet describing the JCPOA stated flat out “U.S. sanctions on Iran for terrorism, human rights abuses, and ballistic missiles will remain in place under the deal.”