Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

The Sanctions Two-Step

Since the remarkable news from last week about a preliminary framework for a deal to rein in the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions, many experts have drawn attention to the various devils in the details still to be resolved. We would add another devil for consideration: the disconnect between ...


Since the remarkable news from last week about a preliminary framework for a deal to rein in the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions, many experts have drawn attention to the various devils in the details still to be resolved. We would add another devil for consideration: the disconnect between the promises each side believes they have regarding sanctions and the way those promises most likely would be fulfilled in practice. The disconnect is likely to operate on both ends: the unwinding of any sanctions and the re-imposition, or so-called “snapback,” should the need arise.

The question of unwinding sanctions on Iran has already been a focus of considerable discussion. The public messaging coming from the Iranian delegation describes a rapid and comprehensive process whereby all of the U.N. sanctions are removed permanently. The American side, however, describes this unwinding as phased and carefully calibrated to the incremental performance of Iran’s obligations under the framework agreement. Iran describes permanent and total relief, and the United States describes gradual and highly contingent relief. Both sides may be in for some unpleasant surprises, because the sanctions relief is likely to be less immediate and complete than Iranians want, and less carefully tailored to achieve political objectives than Americans want.

In selling to skeptics at home, President Barack Obama emphasized a different element of the sanctions provisions outlined in the framework: How sanctions would “snap back” should Iran fail to comply with any of its obligations under the deal. The phrase “snap back” is vivid, and conveys precisely the sort of rapid, alert, and decisive action skeptical hawks have been demanding from the administration for the past 18 months. If sanctions really would “snap back” at the first sign of Iranian violations, then hawks have at least some of their concerns alleviated.

But if sanctions really do “snap back” as promised, it would be an unprecedented episode of economic diplomacy. There are still details that have yet to be revealed publicly — one suspects there some of these details are yet to be fleshed out among the negotiating players themselves — so perhaps negotiators have come up with something innovative and powerful. But we have struggled to come up with historical examples where sanctions effectively function in the way President Obama describes the Iranian nuclear sanctions would operate. It is more likely that re-imposing sanctions would resemble a “clawback,” not a “snapback.”

Consider why a “snapback” would be more difficult than many believe:

  • There likely would be no existing U.N. Security Council authorization for the imposition of additional sanctions. Iran has claimed that the deal calls for a new U.N. Security Council Resolution annul all previous nuclear-related sanctions on the country, so any U.N. sanctions following the finalization of the text of a Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action by June 30 could require a new Security Council vote, running the same veto gauntlet that has blocked effective multilateral action so often in the past.
  • Whatever U.N. sanctions are in place would be triggered not by Iranian action, but by the determination of Iranian misbehavior by an authorized body, probably the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This process is anything but “snapback” in character; for nearly a decade, the IAEA has been struggling to reach a conclusion on the so-called Possible Military Dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. The IAEA is understandably cautious about making dispositive judgments in the fog of uncertainty, but this reluctance to decide illustrates just how difficult it could be for the organization to determine that Iran is not abiding by the terms of any new agreement, even with the enhanced inspections and transparency that the agreement hopefully provides.
  • Of course there could be multilateral sanctions outside of the U.N., but the most important players in that process — our European allies — traditionally require U.N. Security Council Resolution top cover before implementing economic sanctions of this sort. Moreover, by that time, European businesses would have re-invested in Iran, forming a potent political lobby against the re-imposition of sanctions. Vigorous U.S. action could overcome European reluctance and muster a coalition of the more-or-less willing, as happened after the U.S. ramped up economic pressure in 2010, but it’s more of a long, hard slog than a “snapback.”
  • The unilateral U.S. sanctions are the ones that could be re-imposed most quickly, should the need arise. According to some descriptions of Obama’s plan, the administration intends to lift sanctions by exercising the various waivers built into the statutory bases of the sanctions. Some of these could be re-imposed at the stroke of a pen. Yet, even here, the process is likely to be more fraught than a quick and easy re-imposition. For starters, there is likely to be great uncertainty and internal debates about the nature of any Iranian violation. Indeed, the administration has not drawn a clear line between what it considers significant versus insignificant violations, intentionally giving itself wiggle room to avoid the automaticity implied by “snapback.” Moreover, the most recent ratcheting up of pressure on Iran was driven as much by congressional action as by the Obama administration, if not more so. The Obama administration has not exhibited a snapback approach to coercive diplomacy, at least not yet.

In the context of U.S. unilateral sanctions, close coordination between the executive and congressional branches could decisively strengthen the sanctions portion of the deal. At a minimum, Congress should press the administration to clarify what it considers significant and insignificant violations. However, there may not be much Congress can do to shore up the sanctions-related parts of the deal that rely on rapid and effective U.N. action. Moreover congressional action cannot overcome indecision within the executive branch. There will undoubtedly be powerful countervailing pressures against re-imposing painful sanctions. And as the Obama administration showed when it came time to enforce its own red line against Syrian use of chemical weapons, sometimes these forces can persuade the president to ignore his own unambiguous threats — even when there is no doubt that carrying out the threat is warranted.

Whether this is a good deal for Iran — one Iran will want to honor — may well depend on how the first set of sanction uncertainties (unwinding) is resolved. Whether the deal is a good one for the United States — one that adequately hedges against Iranian cheating — may well depend on how the second set of sanction uncertainties (re-imposing) is resolved. Either way, there is still plenty to be clarified before concluding that this deal has solved the problems that have bedeviled nonproliferation efforts in the past.


Eric Lorber is an adjunct Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Senior Associate at the Financial Integrity Network, and a senior adviser at the Center for Sanctions and Illicit Finance at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.