The importance of secondary sanctions to rein in Iran

As we approach President Trump’s self-imposed deadline to end secondary sanction waivers on Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it has become clear that amid all the hyper-partisan rhetoric, there is a lack of understanding of what secondary sanctions are, why they are an indispensable tool for advancing American diplomacy in the Middle East and what the true nature of the Iran agreement is.

Before we dive into sanctions, it is necessary to understand what the agreement actually entails. According to former secretary of state John Kerry, “We’ve been clear from the beginning: We’re not negotiating a ‘legally binding plan.’”

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During a recent NPR interview, the State Department’s policy planning director, Brian Hook, disabused anyone from believing the agreement is a sacrosanct document. The “JCPOA is not a treaty… it’s not an executive agreement. It has no signatures. It has no legal status.”

Which brings us to sanctions. Sanctions are a non-military, diplomatic tool to put pressure on international entities, nations and persons which undermine American national security interests. They are targeted against nations and entities that participate in things like narco-terrorism, or undermine American interests by seeking to acquire nuclear, biologic or chemical weapons. America’s use of sanctions has been an integral part of its strategy to contain Iranian nuclear weapons capabilities, as well as other malign behaviors.

Primary sanctions target only American companies and individuals who would do business with sanctioned entities. Whereas the goal of secondary sanctions is to target non-American businesses and individuals who would otherwise trade with regimes that defy American national security interests. This is all the more important after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on his inaugural Middle East trip this week called for new Iranian sanctions. Meanwhile, the European Union, led by Italy, refuses to reinstate or add any meaningful non-nuclear related sanctions. President Obama invited the Europeans to resume lucrative business with Iran, and they don’t want to stop.

The goal of secondary sanctions is to penalize non-US companies and persons who commercially transact with Iran by limiting their access to the American financial network and economy.

As Ole Moehr said, writing for the Atlantic Council, “Secondary sanctions amplify [the effect] of primary sanctions… [They] put pressure on third parties to stop their activities with the sanctioned country by threatening to cut off the third party’s access to the sanctioning country.” The JCPOA affected only secondary sanction waivers regarding Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Since the summer of 2015 when the JCPOA was agreed to, there has been underwhelming enforcement of sanctions that were not waived as part of the agreement.

THIS IS in part because the international community and American supporters of the Iran deal have claimed that significant enforcement of non-nuclear secondary sanctions is really a subterfuge to scuttle the JCPOA. According to The Wall Street Journal, the State Department has been trying but has been unable to convince the international community to sanction even those entities that are obviously associated with Iran’s missile program.

During the Obama administration, the United States deferred to the United Nations and to members of the UN Security Council, in effect allowing China and Russia to undermine American interests by the power of their veto. President Obama’s Wilsonian view of the world turned a blind eye to the 21st-century reality of global Shi’ite Islamic hegemonic aspirations and to Iran’s religiously sanctioned deception (taqiyya). As a result, the chance for future Middle Eastern wars has only increased, the exact opposite of the international community’s goal for stability.

If America judges its foreign policy interests are being undermined by international organizations – particularly the UN and EU – it must act independently to take charge with its own targeted secondary sanctions. As the world’s economic leader, other nations will be forced to comply with the US or lose access to its financial system.

My conversations with former Treasury Department officials have clearly indicated that without the implementation and enforcement of secondary sanctions against foreign businesses and countries transacting with Iran, America will be spinning its wheels. This is true only in regard to nuclear proliferation, but also regarding the reining in of Iran’s organization, training and funding of terrorist proxies, missile development and human rights abuses.

Congress was promised that the US waivers of secondary sanctions in the JCPOA were to be related only to the Iranian nuclear program. In reality what happened is we have allowed the JCPOA to hold hostage the imposition of legitimate and promised sanctions for Iran’s other offensive in-our-face hostile acts.

The Trump administration now has the opportunity to fix the JCPOA, using the leverage of non-nuclear secondary sanctions. The “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” signed last August by President Trump was a good start, but it is not enough.

The Iranian economy is on the ropes. Enforced secondary sanctions on companies doing business with Iran can have a real impact on Iran’s footprint in Syria; affect its support of Hezbollah and Hamas; curtail its missile development; and bring it back to the table to fix the flaws in the JCPOA. Among those flaws are getting rid of the agreement’s sunset provisions and obtaining effective access to Iran’s weapons development sites.

The writer is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™ who regularly briefs members of Congress on the Middle East and a contributor to ‘The Jerusalem Post,’ The Hill and ‘The Forward.’