May 8, 2017

Holding Iran Accountable for its Destabilizing Behavior


  • The Iran nuclear agreement provided relief from nuclear-related sanctions only. The agreement does not prevent the United States from using sanctions in other contexts.
  • Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent certification that Iran is meeting its requirements under the nuclear agreement does not prevent the use of sanctions to hold Iran accountable for its continuing support for terrorism, ballistic missile testing, violations of legally binding arms embargoes, and support for Assad in Syria.
  • The United States could continue to provide the sanctions relief required by the nuclear agreement, as long as Iran is fulfilling it. Consistent with the nuclear agreement though, sanctions remain available as a foreign policy tool in other, non-nuclear contexts. 

Iran Scorecard Checklist

jcpoa certification and sanctions relief review

The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act provided a way for Congress to review and vote on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the Iran nuclear agreement. The House of Representatives declined to express support for the agreement by a vote of 162-269. A vote to overcome a Senate Democratic filibuster of a resolution disapproving of the agreement failed by a vote of 58-42.

The act provided that the president is to certify every 90 days that Iran is implementing the agreement. He is also to certify whether suspension of sanctions against Iran under the JCPOA is “vital to the national security interests of the United States.”

When the bill that would become the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act was first introduced, part of this certification also was that “Iran has not directly supported or carried out an act of terrorism” against the United States or a U.S. person. This requirement was not in the final bill.

Last month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent to Congress the latest certification that Iran is implementing the nuclear agreement. In his message, he pointed out that “Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror.” He then said that President Trump ordered an interagency review to evaluate “whether suspension of sanctions related to Iran pursuant to the JCPOA is vital to the national security interests of the United States.” He concluded by saying that when this review is complete, “the administration looks forward to working with Congress on this issue.”

As both the executive and legislative branches evaluate America’s ongoing relationship with Iran, some of the most pressing issues will include Iran’s continued testing of ballistic missile technology, its violation of multiple arms embargoes, and its support for terrorism and for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

missile tests

At the beginning of last year, the director of national intelligence testified to Congress that “Iran’s ballistic missiles are inherently capable of delivering WMD, and Tehran already has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East.” Iran’s inventory and capability are free to grow under the JCPOA.

Iran has conducted numerous missile tests since the JCPOA went into effect. Prior to the JCPOA, these missile tests would have violated binding international law.

After 2010, Iran had an international legal obligation not to “undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology,” as directed by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929. Iran ignored it. Then, Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA, relieved Iran of the requirement not to test ballistic missile technology, even though Iran never lived up to the obligation in the first place. Iran is now merely “called upon” not to engage in such activities.

Thus, Iran’s missile tests continued. In response to a missile test on January 29, the Treasury Department announced five days later that it was placing sanctions on 17 people and entities for their support of Iran’s ballistic missile program.

Since the JCPOA has nothing to say about Iran’s ballistic missile testing, sanctioning Iran for these tests cannot violate the JCPOA.

arms embargoes

Iran continues to violate multiple legally binding arms embargoes established by the U.N. Security Council. Similar to the missile testing ban, when President Obama was completing the JCPOA, he agreed to lift the arms embargo on Iran, even though Iran never complied with its requirements. Security Council Resolution 2231 lifted the arms embargo after five years, no matter whether Iran complied with it or not.

On his way to Saudi Arabia last month, Secretary of Defense James Mattis pointed out how Iran continues to violate multiple arms embargoes, saying, “we see Iranian-supplied missiles being fired by the Houthis into Saudi Arabia.” Not only is this a violation of Security Council Resolution 2231, it also violates U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216, which prohibits the transfer of arms to certain entities in Yemen, namely transfers that would benefit the Houthis.

The Security Council has created overlapping requirements, binding under international law, pertaining to the transfer of arms from Iran. The statement of Secretary Mattis means that Iran continues to violate at least two Security Council resolutions on the matter. Iran can separately be held accountable for these violations without offending or violating the JCPOA.

regional destabilization

In addition to supporting rebels in Yemen, Iran continues to support Assad to great effect. Last month, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Iran “has propped up and shielded Syria’s brutal dictator for years.” The Congressional Research Service has analyzed the effect of this, saying Assad has “leveraged military, financial, and diplomatic support” from Iran to consolidate his position against his opponents. The JCPOA does not speak to Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the region, and thus sanctioning Iran for it would not violate the JCPOA.

sponsoring terrorism

Secretary Tillerson was clear in his most recent certification that “Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror.” When President Obama announced the completion of the JCPOA, he said, “we will maintain our own sanctions related to Iran’s support for terrorism.” Using sanctions to hold Iran accountable for its continuing support of terrorism is perfectly consistent with the JCPOA.

holding iran accountable

Secretary Tillerson has announced the Trump administration is reviewing whether sanctions relief under the JCPOA remains in the U.S. national security interest. This is a positive step, but that review need not constrain the use of sanctions to hold Iran accountable for its other bad behavior. In fact, the United States could continue to provide the sanctions relief required by the JCPOA, as long as Iran meets its JCPOA requirements, and still use other sanctions in a way that is consistent with the JCPOA. As the Obama administration said repeatedly, the JCPOA was about providing Iran “relief only from nuclear-related sanctions.” 

In a statement in his final days of service, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “We still have serious differences with the Government of Iran, and will continue to push back on its support for terrorism, disregard for human rights, and destabilizing regional activities.” That pushback could include economic sanctions, which could be levied consistently with the JCPOA in this context.

Issue Tag: National Security