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Comment | The Complex Mechanics of Removing US Sanctions on Iran


27 Dec 2012 15:36Comments

Even a nuclear pact may not be enough to make it happen.

Navid Hassibi is a doctoral student at the University of Antwerp, focusing his research on the nuclear weapons policy of the United States under the Obama administration. The opinions expressed here are the author's own.
[ analysis ] Speaking at the Brookings Institution earlier this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared, "When Iran is prepared to take confidence-building measures that are verifiable, we are prepared to reciprocate." Reciprocate in what way exactly? Presumably by beginning to lift U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran. A negotiated settlement to the Iranian nuclear dispute will undoubtedly require sanctions relief. What are the mechanics involved in lifting these sanctions? As one adage puts it, "Sanctions are extremely difficult to enact, even more difficult to implement, nearly impossible to remove." Here follows a brief look at the process involved at lifting U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iran.

The United States is enforcing two types of sanctions on Iran: congressionally mandated ones enacted via legislation, and executive-branch-driven ones instituted via executive order. The repeal or amendment of the congressionally enacted ones must follow the same legislative process all bills must undergo to be passed and signed into law. According to the Treasury Department, there are currently nine acts of Congress that provide the statutory framework for the U.S. sanctions regimen imposed on Tehran.

To repeal or amend any of these statutes, a member of Congress would have to sponsor an entirely new bill. An amendment can be designed to remove sections of and/or add to an existing statute. As with all pieces of legislation, a move to repeal previous acts of Congress must be voted out of committee before reaching the full House of Representatives and Senate.

Given the influence exerted on members of Congress by lobbying entities such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and Iranian opposition groups such as the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (MKO) -- whose State Department designation as a foreign terrorist organization was recently lifted, thus enabling it to raise funds and make donations in the United States -- there may be a lack of will on Capitol Hill to soften the sanctions regimen, even in the event of a grand bargain between the Obama administration and Iran. Executive orders cannot alter statutes, so should such an impasse transpire, the president may have to resort to rousing public opinion by lambasting Congress for failing to act in the interests of national security.

With regards to those sanctions instituted by means of executive order, the process of repeal or amendment is much simpler. The president need simply sign an order that takes precedence over any relevant previous ones. There are at present 25 executive orders that provide legal justification for sanctioning Iran. President Barack Obama could provide significant sanctions relief unilaterally by releasing Iranian assets frozen in the aftermath of the hostage crisis in 1979, or by allowing certain business transactions between the two countries that are explicitly blocked only by executive order, such as the sale of spare aircraft parts for Iran's aging fleet of U.S.-built airliners.

While the sanctions imposed on the Central Bank of Iran by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 would seem to bar the Islamic Republic from actually paying for such goods, the president arguably could instruct the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control and the State Department's Office of Economic Sanctions Policy and Implementation to provide exemptions and waivers to companies and countries who wish to do business with Iran in certain defined fields. Alternatively, the administration could simply not enforce the law in particular instances, as with Obama's decision that the government would curtail the deportation of undocumented immigrants. The constitutionality of this tactic is a matter of debate.

Peacefully resolving the nuclear issue with Iran will be difficult in its own right, but removing sanctions could prove to be just as difficult, due not only to the aforementioned factors of congressional process and lobbying influence, but also to the wording of the sanctions legislation. For instance, the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 states that sanctions can be lifted only once the Islamic Republic has released all political prisoners; ceased all violence against and maltreatment of Iranian citizens engaged in peaceful political activity; conducted a transparent investigation into the killings and abuse of peaceful political activists and prosecuted those responsible; and made progress toward the establishment of an independent judiciary. Furthermore, the president must also certify that the Iranian government has ended its support for acts of terrorism and that it no longer meets the standard for designation as a state sponsor of terrorism; and that it has halted the pursuit, acquisition, and development of nuclear, biological, chemical, and ballistic weapons. In other words, even if Washington and Tehran were to resolve their differences over the Iranian nuclear program, that would be far from sufficient statutorily to permit the lifting of sanctions. The Obama administration may have no choice but to ignore these provisions of the law; there may never be a peaceful resolution otherwise.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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