WASHINGTON – During a hearing on the implications of sanctions relief in the Iran nuclear deal, U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned language in the agreement could allow Tehran to effectively block future sanctions, including for terrorism, by threatening to stop compliance with the agreement. The committee’s third hearing on the Iran deal featured testimony from Juan C. Zarate, a former U.S. counterterrorism official, and Richard Nephew, a former sanctions expert at the U.S. Department of State.
“It’s worth noting that real questions about sanctions relief remain,” said Corker. “On the same day the U.N. passed the resolution endorsing the deal and setting up the snapback mechanism, Iran wrote a letter to the U.N. saying they would treat use of the snapback as grounds to walk out of the agreement. While this agreement is not intended to address terrorism, many of us worry that the agreement will prevent the U.S. from using economic tools to counter Iranian regional aggression.”
Corker cited reauthorization of the Iran Sanctions Act, which expires at the end of 2016, as an example of an action Iran could use to accuse the United States of violating the agreement. During previous testimony before the committee, Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew would not say whether reauthorization of the act would be permissible under the deal but did argue against extending the sanctions law until the nuclear agreement is implemented.
“I see no reason why simply extending existing authority, which could be waived, would be a violation of the agreement, but Secretary Lew and the Iranians seem to think otherwise,” said Corker.
Zarate expressed broad concerns about the structure of the agreement and the potential for Iran to exploit the benefits of the deal without abandoning plans for a nuclear weapon.
“With strategic patience, Iran can march toward a weaponized program with greater capabilities, breakout capacity, and more economic resources, resilience, and connectivity to the global oil markets and commercial system,” said Zarate. “Even if Iran complies with all elements of this deal, Iran will end up with an unfettered opportunity to break out and weaponize its nuclear program, overtly or covertly, along with an ability to arm itself and its allies more openly and aggressively. The end state of the agreement takes us far afield from the declared goal of successive administrations at the start of negotiations.”
Zarate also specifically raised concern over the timing and nature of the sanctions relief and constraints on the use of U.S. economic leverage to address all the national security threats posed by Iran.
“The sanctions relief provided is too front-loaded, does not account for the increased risks stemming from Iranian commercial and financial activity, and broadly constrains the U.S. government’s ability to use effective financial power against Iranian ‘non-nuclear’ national security risks,” added Zarate. “Despite the attempts to phase out various sanctions lists and retain a ‘snapback’ provision, the JCPOA contemplates early relief by allowing for frozen Iranian funds (upwards of $150 billion) to be released after Implementation Day without constraint and for many of the financial, oil, and commercial sanctions and restrictions to be lifted.”
The primary enforcement mechanism touted by the Obama administration is the “snapback” provision, which would permit the United States to use its veto power at the United Nations Security Council to prevent further sanctions relief after an Iranian violation. Zarate cautioned an Iranian threat to walk away from the deal would greatly reduce the likelihood of reapplying sanctions, especially for minor violations for which there may be no consequence.
“The ‘snapback’ framework itself proves problematic and does not preserve U.S. and international ability to leverage effectively the sanctions regime against Iran,” he said. “The international community may have left itself no real recourse or sanction for incremental violations, which are likely and in line with past Iranian behavior. Realistically given the construct and consequences, only the most egregious violations that could be proven openly and convincingly to all parties would be subject to an international snapback.”
Senator Corker sought bipartisan support for asking the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to brief members of the committee next week about the agency’s arrangements with Iran that are integral to verification and compliance with the nuclear agreement.
“We’re going to craft a letter for everyone to sign, if they wish, urging the IAEA to come before us next week,” he said.
Archived footage and complete witness testimony from today’s hearing are available here.