Iran Sanctions: Status Quo for Four Months?

December 9, 2014

Publication Type: 

  • Policy Briefs

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Gary Milhollin and Valerie Lincy

On December 7, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the recent extension of talks with Iran as a success, and predicted that a final deal could result well before the end of the seven month extension period.  “I think the target is three, four months, and hopefully even sooner…” he told a gathering at the Brookings Institution.   In defense of his optimism, he said that in “recent weeks we have seen new ideas surface, flexibility emerge that could—I repeat, could—help resolve some issues that had been intractable.”

It appeared that Kerry may have been trying to fend off calls for the new Congress, which will have a Republican majority in both houses, to increase sanctions at once instead of waiting for the extension to expire.  AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, had greeted the extension by announcing that “Congress should quickly take up new bipartisan sanctions legislation” and “act to send a message that U.S. patience is not limitless….” 

That call to action, however, was greeted mainly by vagueness.  Even Congress’ most strenuous champions of sanctions have not threatened anything definite.  Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, charged on December 3 that “Tehran’s desire for a nuclear program has not changed…Iran is only negotiating because it wants economic relief and is betting that more time on the clock benefits its position.”  Yet, despite the tough words, the Senator concluded that “at the end of the day, if no deal is reached by March 24, Congressional action to authorize prospective sanctions may provide the leverage we need….”  Prospective sanctions?  By March 24?  Clearly, the Senator expects nothing to happen during the next four months.  Republican Senator Bob Corker, incoming chairman of the committee, gave the same impression.  He was quoted as saying last week that “I don’t think anybody in Congress wants to feel, quote, responsible for this deal falling apart.”

At least for now, Secretary Kerry appears to have a reprieve from any Congressional action that could upset the negotiations during the four months he predicts he will need.

While no new sanctions appear likely in the coming months, countries are still enforcing most existing sanctions against Iran.  Following decisions by the General Court of the European Union to annul sanctions against several Iranian entities in July, the EU Council reimposed sanctions against these entities last month.  According to the EU, Iranian businessman Babak Zanjani and his company Sorinet Commercial Trust Bankers, along with the Sharif University of Technology “should be included again on the list of persons and entities subject to restrictive measures.”  An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman criticized the sanctions move, saying it “contradicts the purpose of talks and the opposite side’s commitments.” 

Sharif University of Technology is a major Iranian university that cooperates with the Iranian government in military-related work, particularly ballistic missile production and procurement.  According to the EU, the university has agreements with key entities involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program, including the Ministry of Defense, the Aerospace Industries Organization (AIO) and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).  Several university labs have been sanctioned by the United States because of their involvement in proliferation (including Value-Added Services Laboratory, Advanced Information and Communication Technology Center, and Digital Media Lab), however the entire university is not on the U.S. blacklist.

Mr. Zanjani and Sorinet were sanctioned for financing transactions in Iranian crude oil on behalf of Iran’s Ministry of Petroleum, and for helping the Central Bank of Iran and the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) to evade EU sanctions.  According to the EU, Mr. Zanjani has also provided “essential services” to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).  Both Mr. Zanjani and Sorinet were added to the U.S. blacklist in April 2013.  

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