Achievements of and Outlook for Sanctions on Iran

April 22, 2014

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear
  • Missile
  • Military

Mentioned Suspect Entities & Suppliers: 


Kenneth Katzman

Most experts agree that the multilateral sanctions imposed on Iran since 2010 have contributed significantly to producing flexibility in Iran's position on the scope of its nuclear program. There is similar agreement that the effect of sanctions on Iran's foreign policy—particularly on its core interests in the Middle East region—and on its human rights practices, appear to have been minimal to date. In assessing effectiveness, however, it is difficult to separate the effect of sanctions from other variables such as Iran's purported economic mismanagement, attitudes of the Iranian public, and Iranian politics.

Interim Nuclear Deal of 2013

Sanctions have been eased temporarily under an interim nuclear deal of November 2013 ("Joint Plan of Action," JPA), which included a commitment from the United States to impose no new nuclear-related sanctions for the JPA period (until July 20, 2014). Virtually any next step in U.S. and multilateral sanctions on Iran is likely to depend on the course of negotiations for a comprehensive agreement on Iran's nuclear program. Opinion in the United States on the future course of Iran sanctions is deeply divided. As Congress has been an active proponent of sanctions on Iran for many years, it will remain keenly interested in the future direction of Iran sanctions policy.

Proponents of Additional Sanctions

While negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear settlement are going on, some assert that additional sanctions would reinforce the pressure that appears to have encouraged Iran to accept the JPA and increase Iranian willingness to reach an acceptable permanent settlement. Proponents of increased sanctions maintain that additional sanctions will also prevent an erosion of existing sanctions caused by a perception that the JPA has ended Iran's international isolation.

Critics of Additional Sanctions

Critics of this approach maintain that additional sanctions imposed while comprehensive nuclear settlement talks are in progress would reinforce hardliners in Iran who oppose a nuclear agreement with the United States out of distrust of U.S. intentions. Adding sanctions could also cause U.S. partners to separate their Iran policies from those of the United States—particularly if there is a collapse in the negotiations that appears to stem from what others consider to be excessive U.S. demands. Alternatively, a failure of negotiations that is attributed to Iran's unwillingness to accept seemingly reasonable offers would likely lead to a broad international increase in sanctions on Iran.

The Joint Plan of Action and Additional Future Possibilities

The JPA commits the Administration and its negotiating partners to lifting "nuclear-related sanctions" on Iran if there is a comprehensive nuclear deal. Because of the substantial overlap between nuclear related sanctions and those imposed primarily because of other issues, in practice that represents a commitment to broad sanctions relief. Those who support that commitment maintain that Iran will not have the incentive to agree to a permanent settlement unless there is the prospect of substantial sanctions relief. Critics of this view argue that broad sanctions relief will provide Iran even more resources with which it can support militant movements that oppose U.S. interests in the Middle East, and will not likely compel Iran to conform to international standards of human rights practices.

The future course of Iran sanctions could also be affected by Iranian actions that are unrelated to the nuclear talks. Such actions might include a crackdown against any new popular unrest in Iran, a catastrophic terrorist attack by one of Iran's regional allies, expanded Iranian military intervention in Syria, or a power shift in Iran back toward opponents of a nuclear settlement.

Underlying these debates is a lack of consensus over what would constitute an acceptable final nuclear settlement. On the nuclear issues, some argue that any settlement must result in full dismantlement of Iran's nuclear program. The Administration has indicated in the JPA that it might accept an outcome that allows Iran to retain a limited and extensively monitored uranium enrichment program.