Do Recent U.S. Sanctions Against Iran Violate the JCPOA?

 U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin speaks during a news briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., to announce sanctions against Venezuela, August 25, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

A look at the facts helps to clarify the accusation that Washington is violating the JCPOA.

On July 14, 2015, the United States, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany, the European Union and Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), where Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program to peaceful purposes. In exchange, the United States and the EU agreed to lift sanctions against Iran as described in the agreement. The Security Council adopted resolution 2231 endorsing the JCPOA; the U.S. Congress enacted legislation requiring the president to certify every ninety days that Iran is complying with this agreement.

On July 17, 2017, as scheduled, the United States certified Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA. The next day, the State Department announced new sanctions against Iran, citing “Iran’s malign activities across the Middle East which undermine regional stability, security, and prosperity.” In response, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, stated that these new U.S. sanctions violate the JCPOA.

On August 1, Iran, accusing the United States of breaching the JCPOA by enacting these new sanctions, filed complaints with the JCPOA’s Joint Commission and with the UN Security Council. A bill calling for sanctions against Iran, Russian and North Korea was signed into law on August 2, having passed in the House of Representatives and Senate by a vote of 419-3 and 97-2, respectively. Two weeks later, Iran announced it would allocate an additional $260 million for missile development and an equal amount to its Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, the Guard’s unit responsible for overseas operations.

A July 19 a New York Times video entitled “Iran Says US Not Complying with the Nuclear Deal” asked, “On Monday, the U. S. recertified that Iran is complying with the terms of the nuclear deal. But is the U.S. itself complying?”

The video quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and an unnamed Russian official saying that U.S. action is a violation of the spirit and letter of the JCPOA and Professor Daniel Joyner, author of Iran's Nuclear Program and International Law stating that the JCPOA does “not include a general exception for terrorism or anything else.” In a blog posting commenting on his inclusion in this video, Professor Joyner wrote “I do think this is a straightforward case of noncompliance by the U.S. with the JCPOA.”

The Tehran Times was unambiguous: “The US has tried to circumvent the JCPOA by imposing new sanctions against Iran under the pretext of its regional policies.”

The JCPOA does not require Iran to improve its human rights practices, change its foreign or military policies, nor prohibit Iran from launching ballistic missiles. It does however, state the United States (a) “will refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalisation of trade and economic relations with Iran inconsistent with their commitments not to undermine the successful implementation of this JCPOA” and (b) “cease the application of the sanctions” specified under certain provisions of the JCPOA upon the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verification of Iranian compliance with specified obligations, which it has done eight times since its signing, the last the verification issued on August 31.

Therefore, do recent U.S. sanctions against Iran violate the JCPOA?