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2016 will be a crucial phase in the Iran nuclear deal. Implementation day, as it's known, could come as soon as January. That's when inspectors might decide that Iran has met the requirements to limit its nuclear program enough to merit sanctions relief. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: U.S. officials say now it's crunch time. As soon as Iran Iran takes serious steps to curb its nuclear program, the U.S. and its partners are ready to offer sanctions relief. And it's big, says the Treasury Department's Adam Szubin.
ADAM SZUBIN: Non-U.S. parties will be able to purchase unlimited amounts of crude oil, of gas from Iran without risk of U.S. sanctions. Iran will regain access to the international financial system, by and large. The Central Bank of Iran will be allowed to move money and access its reserves.
KELEMEN: Szubin told a recent conference on Iran at the Atlantic Council that Americans will soon be able to import Iranian carpets, pistachios and caviar, and U.S. companies will be free to sell airline parts to Iran. Other sanctions, though, remain on the books, so Szubin's office is issuing detailed guidance to explain to Americans what's possible and what remains off limits.
SZUBIN: For example, we're going to be continuing to have sanctions, including secondary sections, on Mahan airlines. Mahan airlines has been and continues, this very day, to be the primary carrier of choice for the Quds Force in ferrying military equipment and arms to Yemen and to Syria.
KELEMEN: The Quds Force is part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and will remain on U.S. blacklists, as will banks and companies linked to them. Still, critics of the Iran deal say this doesn't give the U.S. enough leverage for the vital year ahead. Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy says the Obama administration should be punishing Iran for recent missile tests that violate U.N. resolutions and for the continued imprisonment of Americans, including a Washington Post journalist.
MARK DUBOWITZ: The administration would've been wise to have taken a little bit more time to ensure that not only are the Iranians ripping out their centrifuges and putting them in storage but that also they would have the U.S. retain some economic leverage to push back against Iranian missile violations, support for terrorism and other illicit activities.
KELEMEN: Dubowitz worries that the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran's Stormtroopers, as he puts it, will benefit most from the sanctions relief.
DUBOWITZ: They get all the money. They can continue their ballistic missile activity, their regional aggression. They can hold our hostages. They can arrest more of our hostages. And, at the end of the day, they've got a nuclear program that's just been put on pause.
KELEMEN: A former Treasury Department official, Elizabeth Rosenberg of the Center for a New American Security, says the U.S. is pushing back and will continue to do so, but she says the White House has to strike a balance.
ELIZABETH ROSENBERG: It's inevitable that there will be dissatisfaction with the administration's approach. They're trying to walk a line between a very aggressive stance and a constructive, perhaps accommodating, approach in order to pursue their deal, implement their deal, see it moving forward.
KELEMEN: Just this week, Secretary of State John Kerry wrote to his Iranian counterpart to ease Iran's concerns about new visa restrictions on people who visit the country and other designated state sponsors of terrorism. Kerry's letter angered many in Congress where the rules were written. Rosenberg sees this as a good-cop, bad-cop routine.
ROSENBERG: There are hardliners all around who are going to make this agreement difficult, and it may be useful for the U.S. administration to have the international community see clearly that it is the best partner out there and working very hard to implement its agreement.
KELEMEN: This administration doesn't have much time left, she says, and this balancing act will only become harder in 2016. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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