On July 17, the Department of State communicated to Congress that Iran remains in compliance with its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement reached over Iran’s nuclear program by the world’s major powers that went into effect in January 2016. Under U.S. law, the Administration is required to make this certification—or not—every 90 days, making this the second time that the Trump Administration has issued such a certification to Congress. In conjunction with certifying Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, the Trump Administration announced that it renewed waivers of certain nuclear-related secondary sanctions necessary to continue the sanctions relief under the nuclear agreement. Secondary sanctions generally are directed toward non-U.S. persons for specified conduct involving Iran that occurs entirely outside of U.S. jurisdiction.
The most recent certification came following intense drama within the Administration, as President Trump reportedly pushed back against the recommendation of his senior national security advisors, who had advised him to approve the certification while continuing to impose sanctions against Iran for activities involving Iran’s ballistic missile program, support for terrorism, and human rights abuses. President Trump acceded to the recommendation. In a statement on July 18, the State Department announced that while it was certifying Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, the United States “remains deeply concerned about Iran’s malign activities across the Middle East” and was imposing sanctions on certain entities and persons involved in those activities.
Specifically, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced that it had designated 16 entities and individuals for engaging in support of illicit Iranian actors or transnational criminal activity, and the State Department designated two entities for supporting Iran’s ballistic missile program. These actions were taken pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13382, which targets proliferators of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery and supporters of such activity, as well as E.O. 13581, which targets transnational criminal organizations.
Going forward, President Trump appears to want more concerted pressure on Iran, but it is not clear what unilateral steps he might be willing to take. The practice of the Obama Administration, carried forward by the Trump Administration, has been to abide by the terms of the JCPOA, which was focused exclusively on Iran’s nuclear program, while imposing sanctions on Iran for other destabilizing behavior. The prospect of the U.S. withdrawing from the JCPOA and reversing the sanctions relief is unpalatable, as Iran could simply resume its nuclear activities. Given the dearth of good policy options, the likeliest scenario is that the Trump Administration will continue to certify Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, while imposing sanctions for other activities. Meanwhile, Congress is considering its own package of mandatory sanctions, which would largely codify existing authorities already available to the President and that do not implicate the nuclear-related secondary sanctions relief of the JCPOA.