US tiptoes through minefield of sanctions to Iran nuclear deal
As the United States searches for a path to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, it tiptoes into a minefield laid by former US President Donald Trump.
The mines are Iran-related sanctions that Trump has imposed on more than 700 entities and people, according to a Reuters tally of the US Treasury actions, after he abandoned the nuclear deal and reinstated all the sanctions he removed .
Of these, Trump has blacklisted about two dozen institutions vital to the Iranian economy, including its central bank and national oil company, using US laws designed to punish foreign actors who support terrorism. or the proliferation of weapons.
The removal of many of these sanctions is inevitable if Iran is to export its oil, the biggest advantage it would have in complying with the nuclear deal and limiting its atomic program.
But dropping them leaves Democratic President Joe Biden exposed to accusations he’s lenient on terrorism, a political punch that may be inevitable if the deal is to be revived.
This possibility has already aroused strong Republican criticism.
“This is immoral,” former Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last month as he promoted legislation to make it harder for Biden to lift sanctions against him. ‘Iran.
John Smith, director of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) from 2015 to 2018, described Trump’s wave of sanctions against Iran as “on a scale unprecedented in modern American history.”
Targeting Iranian institutions to support terrorism or to establish links with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has made relaunching the deal much more difficult, said Smith, now a partner at law firm Morrison & Foerster.
“By adding global terrorism, the IRGC or human rights violations to any list, you are making it politically incredibly difficult … to take these names off the list,” he said. “You can do it, but you risk a lot more potential returns if you do.”
A U.S. official said the Trump-imposed Reuters sanctions tally came close to the Biden administration’s tally, although the judgment on what to include may give slightly different totals.
LEGITIMATE OR CONTRIBUTED?
The reinstatement of US sanctions has spoiled the Iranian economy, which shrank 6% in 2018 and 6.8% in 2019, according to data from the International Monetary Fund.
Trump, a Republican, withdrew from the deal in 2018, saying he was giving Iran excessive sanctions relief for inadequate nuclear restrictions, and he imposed a “maximum pressure” campaign in an attempt failure to force Tehran to accept stricter nuclear limits.
He also said the deal failed to reduce Iran’s support for terrorism, support for regional proxies in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and ballistic missile pursuit.
Biden wants to restore the pact’s nuclear limits and, if possible, expand them while pushing back what he called Iran’s other destabilizing activities.
U.S. and Iranian officials have started indirect talks in Vienna to find a way to resume compliance with the deal, which Iran, after waiting about a year after Trump’s withdrawal, began to violate in 2019 in retaliation .
Under the deal, Tehran limited its nuclear program to make it less capable of developing an atomic bomb – an ambition Iran denies – in return for easing economic sanctions imposed by the United States, the Union European Union and the United Nations.
European diplomats are shuttling between the US and Iranian delegations because Tehran rejects direct talks. Officials are trying to strike a deal by May 21, but major hurdles remain. Read more
Among these is what to do about sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), which was sanctioned in 2012 for freezing its assets under US jurisdiction. These sanctions were lifted as part of the nuclear deal and resumed when Trump withdrew.
In September 2019, Trump went further by blacklisting the CBI, accusing it of providing financial support to terrorist groups, effectively preventing foreigners from dealing with them.
It has also targeted other parts of Iran’s oil infrastructure for alleged support for terrorism, including the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), the National Iranian Tanker Company and the National Petrochemical Company.
If Iran wants to sell its oil overseas, sanctions lawyers say these companies must get sanctions relief, otherwise they will remain radioactive to foreign companies. US companies are already banned from doing business with them under various sanctions.
Foreshadowing a likely Republican line of attack, Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration’s last special envoy to Iran, argued that the sanctions were imposed for legitimate reasons.
“These designations were legally and morally sufficient and justifiable,” he said. “They weren’t pulled out of nowhere.”
FOCUS ON THE CENTRAL BANK
A senior US State Department official said the Biden administration did not plan to challenge the “evidence base” upon which the Trump administration imposed the sanctions.
In fact, this means that he will not argue that these entities did not support terrorism.
On the contrary, he said, the Biden administration concluded that it was in the national security interest of the United States to revert to the nuclear deal, officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA ), justifying the removal of sanctions.
Trump’s decision in April 2019 to blacklist the IRGC and its foreign paramilitary and spy wing of the Quds Force as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) also complicated matters.
The action marked the first time the United States has officially branded another country’s military as a terrorist group.
In September 2019, OFAC used counterterrorism authorities to target Iran’s central bank, which it accused of providing billions of dollars to the IRGC, the Quds Force and the Lebanese Hezbollah, which Washington has long viewed as a terrorist group.
“What I would find particularly reprehensible is any move that would change the IRGC’s sanction for terrorist activity because the IRGC is engaged in terrorist activity. This is a clear case,” Abrams said.
The Biden administration, however, does not need to remove the IRGC’s FTO designation in order to remove central bank-related sanctions.
The Treasury Secretary can override any sanctions imposed on the central bank under U.S. executive orders, which give the president the ability to impose or reverse them at will, former U.S. officials have said.
The State Department only said that if Tehran were to resume compliance with the agreement, it would remove these “JCPOA-incompatible” sanctions without giving details.
“The political heat is going to be, frankly, quite intense,” said Iranian analyst Henry Rome of the Eurasia group. “Anything related to the ‘T’ word in this matter will be a ready-made talking point for those who oppose a return” to the nuclear deal, “he said, referring to” terrorism”.
“The political challenge here is to say, ‘The designations may have been legitimate, but we have other foreign policy interests that nevertheless dictate their removal.’ It’s a tough needle to thread, but it’s a needle they’ll need to do. “
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