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?
In announcing its new sanctions, the July 18 State Department statement specified Iran’s “egregious human rights record,” its detention of “U.S. citizens and other foreigners on fabricated national-security related charges,” that Iran continues to support terrorist groups, the Assad regime, to provide arms to the Houthis in Yemen, and “continues to test and develop ballistic missiles” These same reasons are listed in the August 2 legislation .
The JCPOA does lift sanctions on Iran; its Annex II (“Sanctions-related commitments”) enumerates sanctions the United States and the EU are required to lift if Iran is found in compliance with the JCOPOA. However, as indicated in Annex I (“Nuclear-related measures”), the requirements made of Iran are nuclear-related. The JCPOA makes no non-nuclear related demands on Iran, nor does it prohibit parties to the JCPOA from sanctioning Iran on non-nuclear matters. Otherwise, by signing the JCPOA Iran would be free to engage in foreign policy matters, immunized from Western or UN sanctions.
The Obama Administration’s Policy
The Obama administration made clear that lifting sanctions against Iran applies only to nuclear related issues. In his announcement on July 14, 2015, the day the JCPOA was signed, President Barack Obama stated that the JCPOA “doesn’t mean that [it] will resolve all of our differences with Iran . . . [the U.S.] will maintain our own sanctions related to Iran’s support for terrorism, its ballistic missile program, and its human rights violations.”
On July 23, 2015, Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew testified on the JCPOA before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “We have been very clear that we retain our right and we will if we need to re-impose sanctions for reasons that are non-nuclear” even if Iran abides by the JCPOA.