NPR logo

A Look At How Sanctions Would 'Snap Back' If Iran Violates Nuke Deal

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/424571368/424571369" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Look At How Sanctions Would 'Snap Back' If Iran Violates Nuke Deal

Middle East

A Look At How Sanctions Would 'Snap Back' If Iran Violates Nuke Deal

A Look At How Sanctions Would 'Snap Back' If Iran Violates Nuke Deal

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/424571368/424571369" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Iranian workers transfer goods from a cargo container to trucks in May at the Kalantari port in Chabahar, Iran. The removal of sanctions on Iran under a recent deal with world powers is expected to boost the country's economy, but the agreement was carefully constructed to quickly put those sanctions back in place if Iran is suspected of violations. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Iranian workers transfer goods from a cargo container to trucks in May at the Kalantari port in Chabahar, Iran. The removal of sanctions on Iran under a recent deal with world powers is expected to boost the country's economy, but the agreement was carefully constructed to quickly put those sanctions back in place if Iran is suspected of violations.

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

One of the main points of contention for critics of the nuclear deal between world powers and Iran is how to reimpose economic sanctions if Iran is seen to be violating the terms.

President Obama and other proponents of the deal vow that international economic sanctions will "snap back" into place as punishment for any Iranian transgressions.

Normally that would need to go through the U.N. Security Council, where Russia and China have veto power and the U.S. can't count on its proposals passing, so negotiators for the U.S. and its allies — including Russia and China — agreed on an unusual way to handle sanctions. But it includes a high-stakes catch that could negate the deal.

Here's how it would work: If U.S. officials believe Iran is violating the deal, they would bring the allegation to the Security Council. At that point, sanctions would be imposed automatically — the first unusual twist in the deal. If members of the security council — Russia, China or others — rise to Iran's defense, they can block the new sanctions only by passing a new resolution.

That could be stopped by a U.S. veto. The U.S. is one of five permanent council members — including Great Britain, France, Russia and China — with veto power.

In other words, instead of making sanctions vulnerable to a veto by the five permanent Security Council members, the deal flips that around, and gives the U.S. (or others) power to stop any attempt to block the imposition of sanctions.

This arrangement lasts for 10 years, but U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman says the permanent five members of the security council already are talking about extending that time.

"They will introduce an additional resolution to put in place the same mechanism for an additional five years," she said.

Keep in mind, the five veto-holding members of the council were all in on the negotiations that led to the deal. That's why they called the group negotiation the "P5+1" — the five council veto holders plus Germany. So far they're unified — the council endorsed the plan Monday.

But critics of the deal see a big catch: "Iran actually has its own snap-back," says Mark Dubowitz, sanctions expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which has been campaigning against what it calls a flawed agreement.

What he means is that, if sanctions are reinstated in part or entirely, the deal states that Iran could treat that as grounds to end its cooperation in part or entirely. In other words, if the U.S. wants to slap sanctions back on, it risks giving Iran an out to the deal.

On the other hand, Iran would have to figure that ending its cooperation could provoke an even stronger response from the U.S. In the background of all of this is the threat of U.S. or even Israeli airstrikes — an option that could further inflame the Middle East.

But Dubowitz says the option for Iran to exit the deal will make the U.S. hesitate before citing violations.

"The only thing you'll take to the Security Council are massive Iranian violations, because you're certainly not going to risk the Iranians walking away from the deal and engaging in nuclear escalation over smaller violations," Dubowitz says.

Some suggest Iran will try to weaken the deal gradually by committing incremental, small violations that stretch the terms. But diplomats argue that there's no incentive for the Iranians to do that, because Iran wants to get out from under not just the U.N. sanctions, but also the more biting European and U.S. oil and financial restrictions.

Iran's foreign minister used to come to the talks with a chart of all the sanctions against his country, and one negotiator said it looked like a Jackson Pollock painting. So untangling all that will take time.

But Dubowitz worries that over time, the idea of reimposing sanctions — the snap-back — will have less meaning. Especially in Europe, where companies are eager to do business in Iran.

Throughout the more than a year of talks, the U.S. has had strong backing for sanctions from its negotiating allies — France was one of the toughest. How the U.S. and Iran behave under the deal will probably hinge on who believes they've got support from the international community.

We no longer support commenting on NPR.org stories, but you can find us every day on Facebook, Twitter, email, and many other platforms. Learn more or contact us.