The sixth round of negotiations in Vienna to revive the JCPOA and lift US sanctions on Iran ended inconclusively last month. None of the participants have yet provided specific details about the obstacles still standing in the way.
But then on Sunday, on July 11, outgoing Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif submitted a 264-page report to the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee listing a number of sanctions that the US has so far refused to lift. These “permanent” sanctions appear to be one of the key sticking points in talks about a return to the terms of the nuclear deal.
Javad Zarif has now served as Iran’s foreign minister for eight years. It is very unlikely that he will be offered a position in the cabinet of the incoming, hardline Ebrahim Raisi administration.
In his letter to the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, which was intended as a wrap-up of the six years since the JCPOA’s initial signing, Zarif was forthright in his condemnation of how the Islamic Republic had handled it to date.
“If,” he said, “instead of squabbling and arguing over whether the JCPOA has been a decisive victory or a complete defeat — and it was surely neither — we had tried to make the most of it, the situation could have been very different.”
Zarif’s letter makes it clear that the US has in principle agreed to lift the nuclear sanctions and most of the financial ones – but a welter of others could still stand. The US is not willing to lift sanctions related to human rights abuses, Iran’s missile and military programs, or entities designated as terror groups by the Trump administration.
Sanctions on Iranian Industry
Executive Order 13846, signed by Trump on August 7, 2018 and entitled “Reimposing Certain Sanctions With Respect to Iran”, was the order that formally took the US out of the JCPOA and at a stroke, reinstated all of its previous, crippling sanctions on Iran – from the nuclear industry to car makers, to transactions involving the Iranian national currency.
In the aftermath of this, Zarif had said the US was “determined to destroy” the Islamic Republic. His report to the Iranian parliament states that even if an agreement is reached now, only part of Executive Order 13486 will be repealed.
The next move by the US came in the form of Executive Order 13871, which imposed further sanctions on Iran’s “iron, steel, aluminum, and copper sectors”. According these sanctions, even shipping gold and precious metals from Iran is prohibited.
Like most countries, Iran keeps part of its state assets as gold bullion in international banks. During the previous round of sanctions, Iran had converted a bigger share of its assets to gold bullion to bypass sanctions. With this order, the US was attempting to close this route. In South Africa alone some 13 tons of gold belonging to Iran have been held since 2018.
Trump’s follow-up Executive Order 13902, issued on January 10, 2020, imposed sanctions on Iran’s construction, mining, manufacturing, and textiles sectors “or any other sector of the Iranian economy as may be determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State.”
In justifying these harsh sanctions, Trump announced: “Iran continues to be the world's leading sponsor of terrorism and has threatened United States military assets and civilians through the use of military force and support to Iranian-backed militia groups.
“It is the policy of the United States to deny the Iranian government revenues, including revenues derived from the export of products from key sectors of Iran's economy, that may be used to fund and support its nuclear program, missile development, terrorism and terrorist proxy networks, and malign regional influence.”
This order in turn allowed the US Treasury to expand financial sanctions on Iran. In the weeks that followed the US Treasury put 18 Iranian banks on its sanctions list and seized all their assets within the United States.
Besides Iran’s Central Bank, these included Amin Investment Bank, Bank Keshavarzi Iran, Bank Maskan, Bank Refah Kargaran, Bank-e Shahr, Eghtesad Novin Bank, Gharzolhasaneh Resalat Bank, Hekmat Iranian Bank, Iran Zamin Bank, Kar-Afarin Bank, Khavar Mianeh Bank (also known as Middle East Bank), Mehr Iran Credit Union Bank, Pasargad Bank, Saman Bank, Sarmayeh Bank, Tose’e Ta’avon Bank (also known as the Cooperative Development Bank), and the Tourism Bank. In other words, no Iranian bank escaped the freeze.
Sanctions on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and His Domain
Trump’s Executive Order 13876 then blacklisted the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, together with his office. This was unprecedented in the 42-year history of geopolitical tussle between Iran and the US.
One of the core objectives of Iran’s negotiators in the latest Vienna talks has been to see these particular sanctions repealed. US media outlets have asserted that Islamic Republic officials consider them “insulting”.
This order not only barred the person of the Supreme Leader, his office and institutions under his command from dealing with the US, but also extended to officials appointed by him such as military commanders, his representative at Supreme National Security Council, his son Mojtaba Khamenei, Mojtaba’s father-in-law Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, president of the Academy of Persian Language and Literature, and even Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. After the recent negotiations Iranian officials claimed this set of sanctions had been lifted but the US government immediately denied the claim.
Sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards
In 2019, on the anniversary of Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, the US State Department designated the Revolutionary Guards a “foreign terrorist organization” - as well as any organizations, companies and individuals with ties to the IRGC. This was the first time that the United States had officially named part of another nation’s state architecture to pose a terrorist threat.
The US has two lists with which it classifies organizations and individuals it says are linked to terrorism. The first consists of entities that support terrorism through financing, equipment or training.
The second list, compiled by the State Department, includes entities said to be directly involved in terrorist activities and, as such, are considered to pose the highest level of active threat to the security of the United States. For years the US has targeted groups on the second list, including al-Qaeda, Islamic State (ISIS), Jundallah of Sistan and Baluchistan, Hezbollah, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Jaish-e-Mohammad in Kashmir, the Haqqani network in Afghanistan, the Nigerian Boko Haram and the Abu Sayyaf network in the Philippines, as a matter of priority.
Before the 2019 designation, the IRGC’s expeditionary Quds Force, the Basij and a number of individual Guards commanders had been on the “softer” first list. Trump’s executive order expanded this to encompass every single commander and officer in the IRGC. In retaliation, the Islamic Republic designated US Central Command a terrorist entity.
During the 2021 negotiations to revive the JCPOA, the US has maintained that this executive order does not violate the nuclear agreement and does not prevent its re-implementation: a stand that has remained a bone of contention between the two sides.
In the introduction to his letter on Saturday, Zarif also wrote that the new agreement and the lifting of sanctions would not be achieved before President Rouhani leaves office. But, he said, the two sides were now closer to an agreement. Zarif expressed hope that “the next administration” – Ebrahim Raisi’s government – would see it through to its re-ratification.
Besides lifting the sanctions, the Islamic Republic wants the US to guarantee that future American administrations will not be allowed to withdraw from the JCPOA, as Trump did. But the US constitution does not allow such a thing and, as a result, this condition, which was set by Ayatollah Khamenei himself, is now another major obstacle.