By Glen Kelley, Doug Jacobson, Michael Burton & David Brummond
Jacobson Burton Kelley PLLC
On October 13, 2017 President Trump announced the long-awaited results of his Administration's Iran policy review. The key aspect of the announcement was that President Trump will not renew certification of Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”) as required by the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (“INARA”), a law passed by the US Congress to provide oversight of the JCPOA. President Trump stated that his decision was made because Iran "has committed multiple violations of the JCPOA" and "has not lived up to the spirit of the agreement."
President Trump also stated that he will "terminate" US participation in the JCPOA unless the parties to the JCPOA agree to make various changes to the JCPOA and that he will request the US Congress to modify INARA to reflect the Administration's concerns. Following President Trump's announcement, OFAC designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps ("IRGC") as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) as required by Congress in a law passed in August 2017. While there has been much discussion on the designation of the IRGC as a SDGT, in practice the designation was purely symbolic as the IRGC has been listed on OFAC's Specially Designated National List since 2007 under various Executive Orders.
Though significant, these announcements do not trigger any changes in the status of the JCPOA or to existing US sanctions.
Following the President's announcement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated that staying in the JCPOA "was in the best interests of the US." In addition, Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Sigal Mandelker said yesterday that it "is important not to confuse the internal US legal process of certification under INARA with our continued implementation of the JCPOA."
President Trump's decision not to certify Iran's compliance with the JCPOA under Inara now shifts the burden to the US Congress, which could in the coming months reimpose some or all of the secondary sanctions on Iran that were waived on January 16, 2016 when the JCPOA was implemented. In addition, President Trump could in the future refuse to waive the secondary sanctions on Iran that remain suspended and could direct OFAC to terminate OFAC General License H.
While the US position on Iran should become clearer in the coming months, President Trump's continued criticism of the JCPOA increases the uncertainty regarding (1) the future of US sanctions relief that was a key part of the nuclear agreement with Iran, and (2) whether non-US companies will continue to be able to conduct business with Iran without fear or being subject to US sanctions.
Increased Risk of US Withdrawal from JCPOA and "Snap-Back" of US Sanctions on Iran
It is important to recall that the US has suspended only a small portion of its Iran sanctions for US companies (relating to commercial aircraft), and "US persons" remain prohibited from nearly all transactions involving Iran or its government.
Nearly all of the suspended US sanctions were “secondary” sanctions primarily directed at non-US companies and individuals. The recent events increase the risk of reimposition or "snap-back" of US sanctions, which could be done in one of the following ways:
1. Reimposition of Sanctions Within Next 60 Days – Once the President fails to certify Iran's compliance with the JCPOA, Congress can pass "qualifying legislation" under INARA in 60 days choosing to reimpose all or some of the Iranian sanctions that have been suspended. However, there does not appear to be significant interest by Congress to proceed in this direction at this time and it is not likely that the necessary votes can be obtained to proceed under this route.
2. Contingent Future Sanctions – Another scenario that is being contemplated by congressional leadership (the Corker-Cotton proposal) is to amend INARA to automatically reimpose US sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program in the future if Iran crosses key thresholds. Among the thresholds being considered is if weapons-grade nuclear material accumulates to the point where there is less than a one-year “breakout” period for obtaining a nuclear weapon.
3. Failure to Waive Suspended Sanctions – Under the JCPOA the President must waive the various sanctions that were suspended. Depending on the underlying law, these waivers must be renewed every 120 days to every six months. It is possible that the Trump Administration could simply choose not to renew one or more of the waivers, which would automatically reimpose the US sanctions. The next waiver deadline is in mid-January 2018. Such action would not require congressional approval and would effectively snap-back sanctions on Iran.
4. Unilateral Withdrawal from JCPOA – The JCPOA does not specifically authorize any party to the agreement to “withdraw." However, the US could choose to cease implementing its commitments under the agreement, which would effectively lead to US abrogation of the JCPOA.
Next Steps and Practical Impact
Because the JCPOA is a multilateral arrangement, a decision by the US to withdraw from the agreement or to reimpose sanctions would have significant ramifications. Iran has threatened to stop complying with its commitments to curtail its nuclear program if the US reimposes sanctions. The costs of Iran’s reinitiating its nuclear program, however, could undercut the sanctions relief it has received from trading partners other than the US. The EU has made clear that if the suspended US sanctions are reimposed, the EU intends to continue to abide by the terms of the JCPOA so long as Iran does. If US sanctions are reimposed, the EU member states would likely support their companies in their Iranian activity and would strongly oppose any US government move to penalize them under reimposed sanctions. There is also the possibility that the EU would expand its sanctions blocking legislation (sometimes referred to in the EU as antiboycott laws) to cover US secondary sanctions on Iran. If Iran stopped complying with the JCPOA, the EU member states would likely withdraw their support for their companies’ activities in Iran, and might even move to the dispute resolution procedures of the JCPOA or a UN Security Council review, which could lead to the reimposition of EU sanctions.
While we are currently in uncharted waters and are dealing with an unpredictable US Administration, the following is a summary of the possible changes to impact on the JCPOA and US sanctions:
1. Incremental non-nuclear additional sanctions are likely, but the reimposition of the suspended US secondary sanctions or other major changes in the near future seem unlikely at this time. It is important to recall that there have been no immediate changes to US sanctions on Iran.
2. The Trump Administration could terminate US participation in the JCPOA and reimpose sanctions in the future, if insufficient progress is made with the parties to the JCPOA to address certain concerns relating to Iran. There are early indications that EU leaders might try to find a way to provide these additional assurances from Iran regarding their activities of concern.
3. The US could reimpose the suspended secondary (extraterritorial) sanctions. While appearing dramatic, this may not have much practical impact on many non-US companies. Moreover, if discreet secondary (extraterritorial) sanctions are "snapped-back", it seems likely the EU and its member states would defend EU-based companies from the adverse economic consequences of a reimposition of sanctions.
4. If US sanctions are reimposed, there is reason to believe that Iran, after protesting, would continue to abide by its JCPOA commitments, particularly if it remains clear that the EU and other countries involved in the JCPOA intend to continue to abide by its terms and authorize business with Iran. Of course it is possible that Iran would follow through on its threat to pull out, and this likely would have a more dramatic practical impact.
Whatever the outcome, the OFAC policy that authorizes the export of US-origin humanitarian products to Iran, including medicine, medical devices, and agricultural products, will remain unchanged, just as it was during the height of US sanctions. However, payments for these transactions remains difficult due to the reluctance of many non-US banks to handle Iran-related payments.