The following are excerpts from a Congressional Research Service report on options that the Trump Administration may use to end or alter U.S. implementation of the Iran nuclear deal.
Options to Cease Implementing the Iran Nuclear Agreement
Kenneth Katzman Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
Paul K. Kerr Specialist in Nonproliferation
Valerie Heitshusen Specialist on Congress and the Legislative Process
September 7, 2017
Overview of the Issue
Press reports in August 2017 indicated that President Trump told his top aides that he might not certify to Congress that Iran is meeting its nuclear obligations under the July 14, 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) when the next certification is due on October 15, 2017.1 There are several mechanisms or methods the Administration might use to cease implementing the JCPOA or to alter its implementation, if there is a decision to do so. One possible option could use provisions of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA, P.L. 114-17) – which amended Section 135(d)(6) of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (42 U.S.C. 2160(e). It requires that the Administration certify every 90 days that Iran is in compliance. The JCPOA was between Iran and the “P5+1” group of countries (United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany).
This report bases its analysis primarily on the text of key documents involved in the issue – the JCPOA itself,2 U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 of July 20, 2015,3 which endorsed the JCPOA, and the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA, P.L. 114-17, of May 22, 2015).
Presidential Decision to Cease Implementing the JCPOA Administration statements indicate that the Administration does not believe that the JCPOA addresses the full range of potential threats posed by Iran. On August 1, 2017, Secretary of State Tillerson told a press briefing “The conversation on Iran does not begin and end with the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement, and I think if there’s one thing I hope I can help people understand it’s that agreement dealt with a very small slice of Iran’s threats, and that was their nuclear program.”4 On September 5, 2017, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley addressed a Washington D.C. think tank, saying, “The truth is, the Iran deal [JCPOA] has so many flaws that it’s tempting to leave it.”5 U.S. officials have stated that the United States will continue to fulfill its JCPOA commitments, pending the outcome of the review.6
Administration officials assert that Iran might be violating the “spirit,” if not necessarily the letter, of the JCPOA. For example, the JCPOA does not address Iran’s development of ballistic missiles or its importation or exportation of arms, including arms transfers to governments and factions in the region that Iran supports. These actions are restricted by United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which requires that, for a maximum period ending in October 2020, any Iranian importation of specified weapons systems requires explicit approval of the Security Council and exportation of any arms from Iran is banned. For a maximum period ending in October 2023, the Resolution calls on (but does not require) Iran to refrain from developing, including testing, ballistic missiles “designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” These restrictions would end, earlier than the maximum deadlines, upon a “Broader Conclusion” by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that all nuclear material in Iran remains in peaceful activities. 7 Iran has engaged in numerous ballistic missile tests since the JCPOA began implementation in January 2016, although both Obama and Trump Administration officials have termed the tests as “defiant of” and “inconsistent with” the Resolution rather than outright violations. Iran has openly supplied several governments and factions in the Middle East region with arms since JCPOA implementation began.
The JCPOA does not specifically provide for any party to the agreement to “withdraw.” 8 Although European and other diplomats argue that Resolution 2231 makes the agreement binding on all parties under the U.N. Charter, officials in the Obama Administration asserted that the JCPOA is a nonbinding political commitment,9 and Trump Administration officials continue to make that assertion. Based on that assertion, President Trump could announce a cessation of U.S implementation of the accord and he could reimpose all or some of the U.S. sanctions that were revoked or suspended to implement the deal. He could reinstate those sanctions imposed by Executive Order, decline to continue waiving provisions of sanctions laws, or re-designate for sanctions entities that were “de-listed” from sanctions to implement the JCPOA. It is unlikely that the President would require the approval of Congress for these courses of action.
A decision to re-impose most or all U.S. sanctions would likely encounter criticism from officials of other JCPOA parties, as well as Iran. European Union diplomats view the JCPOA as a binding international commitment. Iranian leaders indicate within the JCPOA how they would expect to react to a unilateral U.S. decision to reimpose those sanctions that were lifted or suspended. Paragraph 26 states: “...Iran has stated that it will treat such a reintroduction or reimposition of the sanctions specified in Annex II, or such an imposition of new nuclear-related sanctions, as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part.”10
Use of JCPOA Provisions
The Administration might seek to use the provisions of the JCPOA itself to cease U.S. implementation of its commitments under the agreement. Paragraph 36 of the JCPOA outlines a complex “Dispute Resolution Mechanism” under which any party to the agreement can assert that another party is violating the accord and seek to resolve the issue. The Trump Administration could conceivably use this mechanism to accuse Iran of violating the letter - or spirit - of the JCPOA. The JCPOA mechanism outlines a process by which Iran can resolve such a dispute but provides that, “if the complaining participant deems the issue to constitute significant nonperformance, then that participant could treat the unresolved issue as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA....”11 The dispute resolution mechanism also provides for the United States to be able to “snap back” all U.N. sanctions that were in place prior to Implementation Day of the JCPOA (January 16, 2016). 12 The United States is a veto-wielding permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, and the dispute resolution mechanism enables any veto-wielding member to block a U.N. Security Council resolution that would continue the lifting of U.N. sanctions.
The dispute resolution mechanism generally refers to the ability of any party to complain about potential non-performance of only those issues that are directly addressed in the JCPOA – and not issues that are not covered by the agreement, such as ballistic missiles development or Iran’s regional activities. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is the international body that is charged with monitoring and verifying Iran’s nuclear commitments. A U.S. accusation of Iranian non-compliance – in the absence of supporting evidence from the IAEA – would undoubtedly raise questions among other parties to the JCPOA about the U.S. accusations against Iran. The text of the JCPOA dispute resolution mechanism does not address the ability of any JCPOA party to accuse another of violating non-nuclear aspects of the accord.
Use of INARA Provisions The INARA law that provides for congressional oversight of the JCPOA gives the Administration a number of options to cease or alter U.S. implementation of the JCPOA. Material Breach Report INARA authorizes the President to provide Congress with “credible and accurate information relating to a potentially significant breach or compliance incident by Iran...” and, within 30 days of submitting such information, to determine whether the Iranian breach “constitutes a material breach” and whether Iran has “cured such material breach.”17 Under INARA, an Administration confirmation of an uncured material breach of the JCPOA by Iran would trigger expedited procedures for congressional consideration of legislation that would reimpose those U.S. sanctions that have been waived to implement the JCPOA – and prevent further such waivers. A summary of the expedited procedures is provided in the text box at the end of this report.
An Administration report to Congress of a material breach by Iran would almost certainly prompt other P5+1 parties to question whether U.S. assertions are corroborated by similar findings by the IAEA. The INARA material breach report does not appear to provide for the Administration to accuse Iran of an uncured breach on any grounds other than compliance with the nuclear commitments of the JCPOA. Other P5+1 parties might also question whether the United States has provided information on any potential Iranian breach to the IAEA for further investigation under the dispute resolution mechanism discussed above. If the Administration has not provided such information to the IAEA for investigation, its not doing so would likely raise questions about the credibility of the information or the motives of the Administration in reporting such accusations to Congress separately.18
INARA requires the Administration to certify, every 90 days, that all of four main conditions of Iranian compliance have been met. The four points are that Iran: (1) is verifiably and fully implementing the JCPOA; (2) has not committed an uncured material breach; (3) has not taken any action that could advance a nuclear weapons program; and that (4) continued suspension of sanctions (including issuance of waivers of applicable sanctions laws) is vital to the national security interests of the United States. These provisions raise the possibility of several courses of action.
Certification Renewed and U.S. Sanctions Waivers Continued
The Administration has the option of continuing to implement the JCPOA as it has been doing. The requirement that all four INARA compliance certification conditions be met implies that an Administration certification of compliance would automatically be accompanied by a renewal of the waivers of the several secondary sanctions provisions that were issued to implement the JCPOA. Still, such waiver renewals must be separately transmitted to Congress to comport with the requirements of the sanctions laws that were waived to implement the JCPOA.19
Certification Withheld and Some or All U.S. Sanctions Reimposed
Should the Administration seek to alter or end U.S. implementation of the JCPOA, it could decide to withhold certification of Iranian compliance on any of the grounds stipulated by INARA. For example, the Administration could withhold a compliance certification by arguing that Iran has not complied with the spirit of the agreement and that continuing to waive U.S. sanctions is therefore not vital to the national security interests of the United States. Congress might still act additionally on legislation to reimpose U.S. sanctions under the expedited procedures prescribed in INARA. If the Administration reimposes U.S. sanctions, Iran might potentially use the justification in Paragraph 26 of the JCPOA to cease performing its nuclear commitments. Iran’s reaction might depend on whether other parties to the JCPOA, and companies in those countries, reimpose sanctions or exit the Iran market in response to the reimposition of U.S. sanctions.
Re-Designating “De-Listed” Entities for Sanctions
As an alternative to reimposing those sanctions provisions that have been waived or revoked, the Administration could instead restore the “Specially Designated National” (SDN) designation to some of the many entities that were “de-listed” to implement the JCPOA. The entities that were de-listed are those that involve Iran’s civilian economy, such as banks, shipping firms, insurance entities, civilian manufacturers, and energyrelated entities. Re-designating such entities would resume the application of some U.S. secondary sanctions to those entities, including provisions of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA, P.L. 111-195) that closes the U.S. financial sector to third-country financial institutions that conducts transactions with Iran-related SDNs. Iran’s reaction to re-designation of listed entities would likely depend on how the Administration implemented this option. Re-designation of a few entities that are marginal to Iran’s economy might not cause Iran to cease implementing its commitments. However, re-designation of entities that are crucial to Iran’s economy, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) or Iran Air, could potentially cause Iran to assert that the United States has breached the agreement.
Alternative Scenario: Certification Withheld but Sanctions Waivers Continued
Alternatively, even if the Administration withholds certification of Iranian compliance, the Administration might decide to try to keep the accord in force by renewing the waivers of U.S. sanctions laws and otherwise declining to reimpose any sanctions. INARA does not require the Administration to reimpose U.S. sanctions if there is no certification of compliance, but it does, as noted above, give Congress the opportunity to enact legislation to do so, and under expedited procedures. The use of this option would signal Administration dissatisfaction with the JCPOA and perhaps suggest the Administration wants it renegotiated, but without necessarily causing the JCPOA to collapse. An Administration decision to withhold compliance certification while keeping sanctions relief in place would likely not cause Iran to abrogate its commitments under the agreement. Iranian leaders would undoubtedly challenge a withholding of U.S. compliance certification, but Iran likely would continue to implement the agreement as long as sanctions are not reimposed and its economy is, therefore, not damaged by them.
Expedited Congressional Procedures
In the absence of the required certification, or after a presidential determination of non-compliance or an uncured breach, a House or Senate party floor leader may introduce, within 60 calendar days, a bill (with stipulated text) to reinstate sanctions. The bill is subject to expedited congressional procedures (though each chamber could choose to use its existing procedures instead). Committees that are referred the bill are automatically discharged if it has not been reported after 10 legislative days (House) or session days (Senate).
In the House, on or after the third legislative day after reporting/discharge, a majority could agree to a non-debatable motion to bring up the bill. In the Senate, after reporting/discharge, a majority could agree to a non-debatable motion to bring up the bill; no cloture process, with its associated three-fifths vote threshold, is necessary for the Senate to do so.
House floor consideration is limited to two hours. The Senate limit on floor consideration is 10 hours; thus, a numerical majority could pass the bill without the need for three-fifths to first invoke cloture. (A majority could also agree to a non-debatable motion to spend less time on the bill.) Floor amendments are precluded in both chambers. Other procedures would expedite second-chamber consideration of a bill received from the other house.
A bill agreed to by both chambers is subject to presidential veto, which can be overridden by two-thirds vote in both chambers. (Senate consideration of the veto message is limited to 10 hours; no cloture process would be required to reach the override vote.) For more information, see “Legislation to Reinstate Sanctions” in CRS Report R44085, Procedures for Congressional Action in Relation to a Nuclear Agreement with Iran: In Brief, by Valerie Heitshusen and Richard S. Beth.
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