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Picture Oren Drori

One of the prime selling points for supporters of the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—plus Germany) nuclear deal with Iran is that the sanctions on Iran which are being lifted can simply and easily be reinstated (or “snapback” into place) should Iran be found to be cheating. This is not likely to be the case. The “snapback” system that is created in the deal is convoluted and puts hurdles in the way.

The U.N. Security Council has steadily increased the pressure on Iran since 2006 with escalating sanctions targeting individuals, companies, nuclear technology and weapons transfers. In addition to these U.N. sanctions, the European Union introduced further sanctions targeting the Iranian oil industry and the U.S. tightened existing Iran sanctions and introduced new and tougher sanctions. This sanctions regime put major constraints on the Iranian economy that forced the Iranian government to enter into negotiations on its nuclear program. 

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 the situation is still not resolved, the complaint can be brought before an Advisory Board, made up of members appointed by the two parties to the complaint (for instance, the U.S. and Iran if the U.S. has evidence of Iranian malfeasance) and a third independent member. The Advisory Board will issue a non-binding opinion in 15 days, which would then go back to the Joint Commission for five days. The entire process is not streamlined and opens itself up to opportunities for continuing delays.
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). 


It is not a complete “snapback,” however, since it will not be imposed retroactively. Existing contracts and trade would be allowed to continue, so Iran could comply with the deal for years (or not get caught not complying for years) and still reap the rewards of technology and billions of dollars in trade before the sanctions would go back into effect if Iran is caught cheating.

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.

Oren Drori is the Program Officer for United Nations Affairs at B’nai B’rith International where he supports advocacy and programming efforts that advance B’nai B’rith’s goals at the U.N., which include: defending Israel, combating anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and promoting global human rights and humanitarian concerns. He received a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Minnesota in 2004 and an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago in 2006. To view some of his additional content, Click Here.