The deal that was struck between Iran and the world powers promises to lift these sanctions in return for Iran’s curtailment of its nuclear enrichment for a period of time. The sanctions are to be lifted once the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) certifies that Iran has satisfactorily addressed the IAEA’s concerns about Iran’s past illicit nuclear weapon activity and that the current program is civilian in nature.
Should Iran cheat (and, given the Iranian regime’s history, it is a safe bet that Iran will try to cheat), there is a provision in the deal that could re-impose U.N. sanctions, but it is cumbersome. The deal creates a Joint Commission made up of one representative from each government plus an EU representative to ensure compliance by all sides. If there is intelligence that Iran is enriching uranium at higher levels than allowed, or working toward constructing nuclear weapons, a country can bring a complaint to the Joint Commission. The commission would have 15 days to discuss and resolve the issue, subject to extension by consensus. If the commission does not resolve the issue, it can be brought up to the level of the foreign ministers for consideration for 15 days, or longer if extended by consensus.
If, after all of the prolonged bureaucratic procedure, the complaining party does not feel that the issue is resolved, the country can turn to the U.N. Security Council and introduce concerns about Iran’s “significant non-performance” with the deal. At that point, the Security Council will put forward a resolution to continue the lifting of sanctions, which must be adopted within 30 days, or the sanctions will be re-imposed. This is the “snapback” part of the sanctions deal. It means that if Iran is found to be cheating, the sanctions can be re-introduced in a way that does not require an affirmative vote (which could be complicated by council dynamics and the ever-present threat of a veto by one or more of the permanent five members of the council).
Aside from unnecessary bureaucracy, the more serious problem is that the language in the nuclear deal and in the subsequent U.N. Security Council resolution state that it must be a “significant” compliance issue. This is vague—what exactly constitutes "significant non-compliance?" The fear is that the tendency of the world powers will be to minimize or ignore non-compliance issues as not “significant” enough to rise to the level that would require “snapback” sanctions. Why? Because once the U.N. sanctions are re-introduced, the U.N. Security Council resolution “noted” Iran’s stated position that Iran would stop living up to its commitments in the nuclear deal in full. Essentially, the Security Council resolution allowed the “snapback” sanctions to be held hostage by the deal.
A lot of advocacy and diplomacy went into carefully creating the structure of the U.N.’s Iran sanctions system, and within a few short months that will be reversed, and, despite the “snapback” provisions, difficult to fully re-create if necessitated by Iranian non-compliance. If, after 10 years, the sanctions have not been reintroduced, then the sanctions resolutions expire and cannot be “snapped back.” The Iranian nuclear issue would also then disappear from the Security Council agenda.
Yes, sanctions resolutions could then be reintroduced by the world powers if Iran tries to breakout to a nuclear bomb, but it is a long and difficult process to summon up the international will to do so and avoid a Security Council veto, and by then it would be too little, too late. So, Iran can either wait a few years to cheat after trade is already flowing, or wait 10 years for the credible threat of sanctions to disappear almost entirely.