Inside the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013

By Gary Samore


News broke yesterday that three prominent senators—Menendez (D-NJ), Kirk (R-IL), and Schumer (D-NY)—may introduce legislation this year that would impose new sanctions against Iran with a “deferred trigger.” That is, the new sanctions can be averted only if the Obama administration provides specific and difficult certifications every 30 days including that Iran is implementing the terms of the November 24 Joint Plan of Action and negotiating “in good faith” toward a final deal. Based on an advance copy of the “Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013,” I summarize the substance of the draft legislation, including both the new proposed sanctions and the complicated set of presidential certifications and notifications to waive existing sanctions and suspend the additional sanctions.  In a second post, I examine the current legislative state of play and the likely administration objections to the draft legislation.

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What new sanctions are being proposed?

The additional sanctions in the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act of 2013 do not differ greatly from those in House Resolution 850 (“The Nuclear Iran Prevention Act”), which cleared the House of Representatives by a vote of 420–20 in July 2013. Similarities include:

  • Expansion of blacklisted sectors to include Iran’s mining, construction, and engineering industries;
  • Penalties against foreign financial institutions that conduct transactions with Iran’s blacklisted entities using foreign currencies;
  • Penalties against foreign persons who conduct transactions with Iran’s Central Bank or other blacklisted Iranian banks; and
  • Expansion of the number of senior officials in Iran subject to sanctions.

Key differences include:

  • A slightly less strict approach to reducing Iranian oil exports (while H. R. 850 aims to reduce Iran’s exports by one million barrels/day within one year—to practically zero—the Senate legislation requires buyers of Iranian oil to reduce purchases to just an undefined “de minimis” level within two years);
  • A more expansive list of Iranian officials subject to sanctions, including senior officials in the defense, justice, and interior ministries, prison system, and courts; and
  • Considerably less focus on terrorism or human rights violations (H. R. 850 broadens sanctions against Iranians connected to human rights abuses and suggests designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps a Foreign Terrorist Organization).

The essence of the sanctions remains the same: to reduce Iranian oil exports, expand the list of blacklisted sectors, and reduce Iran’s access to foreign currencies.

How does the deferred trigger for new sanctions work?

The primary new contribution of the Menendez-Kirk-Schumer bill is its language outlining conditions the Obama administration must meet to suspend or delay execution of the new penalties and to continue to waive existing sanctions under the terms of the Joint Plan of Action.   The bill outlines four key circumstances. 

Sen. Schumer

First, under the Joint Plan of Action signed in Geneva on November 24, the U.S. agreed not to impose new nuclear-related sanctions for six months, “acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress.” The new legislation authorizes the president to suspend the application of new sanctions for 180 days if he makes a set of certifications to Congress every 30 days during that period.  The 180-day period begins on the date of the act’s enactment or when the president notifies Congress that Iran has agreed to measures to implement the Joint Plan of Action, whichever comes first.

Several of the certifications relate to Iran’s compliance with the terms of the Joint Plan of Action and its implementation arrangements. Beyond that, the president must also certify every month that:

  • Iran is “proactively and in good faith engaged in negotiations toward a final agreement or arrangement to terminate its illicit nuclear activities, related weaponization activities, and any other nuclear activity not required for a civilian nuclear program”;
  • The U.S. is “working toward a final agreement or arrangement that will dismantle Iran’s illicit nuclear infrastructure to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability and permit daily verification, monitoring, and inspections of suspect facilities in Iran so that an effort by Iran to produce a nuclear weapon would be quickly detected.”
  • Iran or its proxies have not directly or indirectly committed an act of terrorism against the United States; and
  • Iran has not conducted a test of a ballistic missile with a range exceeding 500 kilometers.

What will happen to sanctions if negotiations continue beyond six months?

The second set of circumstances addresses the likely scenario in which the P5+1 and Iran agree to extend the six-month negotiations for a final agreement, which, under the terms of the Joint Plan of Action, can be renewed by the mutual consent of the parties. The bill stipulates that new sanctions can only be suspended past six months for two additional periods of 30 days each if the president certifies (in addition to the above certifications) that a final accord is “imminent” and that under such an agreement Iran will “dismantle its illicit nuclear infrastructure to preclude a nuclear breakout capability and other capabilities critical to the production of nuclear weapons.” In other words, the Menendez-Kirk-Schumer bill effectively sets a deadline of 240 days (the initial 180-day period, plus two 30-day extensions), or eight months, for a final agreement to be signed.

What certifications are required for sanctions relief in the interim deal?

The third set of circumstances outlines conditions for continuing to waive existing sanctions under the Joint Plan of Action, which includes U.S. commitments to suspend existing sanctions on gold and precious metals, Iran’s petrochemical exports, and Iran’s automobile industry. Under the act, these sanctions must be immediately reinstated during the eight-month period if the president does not make the certifications required every 30 days to suspend the application of new sanctions. However, the bill also sets out a procedure for the president to waive the reinstatement of existing sanctions in 30-day increments for up to one year after enactment of the act through another set of certifications.

What happens to sanctions in a final nuclear deal?

Finally, the proposed bill sets out conditions for the president to suspend sanctions for one year if the president certifies to Congress that the United States has reached a final agreement with Iran that will:

  • “Dismantle Iran’s illicit nuclear infrastructure, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and facilities, the heavy water reactor and production plant at Arak, and any nuclear weapons components and technology”;
  • Bring Iran into compliance with relevant UN Security Council resolutions;
  • Resolve issues related to IAEA concerns about past weaponization activities;
  • Permit continuous on-site inspection and monitoring of all “suspect facilities” in Iran;
  • Require full implementation of IAEA safeguards, including the Additional Protocol; and
  • Require additional verification measures related to Iran’s centrifuge manufacturing facilities, including raw materials and components, and uranium mines and mills.

The one-year suspension of sanctions in the event of a final agreement can then be renewed for additional one-year increments if the president certifies to Congress that Iran is complying with the terms of the final agreement, in accordance with the above certifications. (The president’s one-year suspension of sanctions can be overturned by a Joint Resolution of Disapproval by both houses of Congress, and the bill sets out expedited procedures for consideration of such a resolution modeled on the fast-track procedures for free trade agreements. Of course, the president can veto any Joint Resolution of Disapproval, and Congress can override the president’s veto with a two-thirds majority in each house.)

Gary Samore is executive director for research at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. From 200913, he was President Obama's White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction.