In a speech today, President Trump announced the result of his Administration’s strategic review of foreign policy towards Iran, including the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”) implemented by the Obama administration in January 2016.  As set out in a White House fact sheet, the Trump Administration will seek to expand the focus of US policy towards Iran to include a number of national security concerns, including Iran’s support of terrorist groups and the development of ballistic missiles.

President Trump took the immediate step of informing Congress that he was unable to certify that the suspension of sanctions pursuant to the JCPOA was appropriate and proportionate to the specific and verifiable measures taken by Iran to terminate its illicit nuclear program.  Section 2 of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (INARA) requires that the President make such a certification, along with other certifications regarding Iran’s compliance with the deal, to Congress every 90 days.  By failing to make this certification , President Trump triggered a process under INARA that allows (but does not require) Congress to use expedited procedures to pass legislation re-imposing sanctions against Iran that are currently being waived by the United States.  See our previous post on this subject.

To that end, the Trump administration announced that it intends to work with Congress to amend INARA to include “trigger points” that would result in the automatic “snapback” of these sanctions.  In conjunction with President Trump’s announcement, Senator Corker published a fact sheet outlining three primary objectives of new JCPOA-related legislation: (1) eliminating sunset provisions in the JCPOA related to Iran’s nuclear program; (2) increasing IAEA authority to verify Iran’s compliance; and (3) curbing Iranian research and development into advanced centrifuges.  Senator Corker’s fact sheet suggests a provision that would require a snapback of sanctions should Iran achieve a one-year or under “breakout” period for attaining nuclear weapons.

President Trump also announced that imposition of additional sanctions would be imposed against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).  In a concurrent announcement, the Department of the Treasury stated that its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated the IRGC under Executive Order 13224 (the terrorism sanctions executive order) for its support of the IRGC-Quds Force, which supports a number of terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Taliban.  Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin stated that the IRGC “permeates much of the Iranian economy” and “those who transact with IRGC-controlled companies do so at great peril.”

While the new designation perhaps is a sign of sharpened focus on the IRGC, it will have little practical impact, as the IRGC already was designated as a Specially Designated National (SDN) under other sanctions programs.  OFAC has summarized the new IRGC sanctions in Frequently Asked Questions guidance. In particular, OFAC explained:

Isn’t the IRGC already subject to sanctions? What’s different about this action?

Yes. The IRGC is also blocked under Executive Orders 13382 (relating to WMD proliferation), 13553 (Iranian human rights abuses), and 13606 (Iranian and Syrian human rights abuses via information technology), and persons who engage in certain activity involving the IRGC may be subject to secondary sanctions. Today’s action designating the IRGC under E.O. 13224, our counterterrorism authority, carries some additional consequences that will limit certain activities with respect to the IRGC. Persons designated under E.O. 13224, which now includes the IRGC, may not avail themselves of the so called “Berman exemptions” under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) relating to personal communication, humanitarian donations, information or informational materials, and travel.

Notably, the Trump Administration did not designate the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, a measure which, as we previously have noted, could have profound implications for the JCPOA.

In addition to the sanctions against the IRGC, OFAC designated four entities pursuant to EO 13882 based on their involvement in WMD proliferation activity.  See OFAC’s press release and web notice.  Three of the entities are Iranian companies that are connected to the Iranian military and/or the IRGC.  The fourth is a Chinese company that sold gyrocompasses and sensors to an Iranian entity designated for proliferation activity, and further provided off-road lumber transporter vehicles to North Korea, which North Korea subsequently converted into transporter-erector-launchers for use in its ballistic missile program.

While the JCPOA remains in effect, the importance of the change in US policy should not be understated.  Uncertainty regarding the future of the JCPOA lingers, and there yet may be more twists and turns to come as Congress takes up consideration of the issue, and as the other parties to the JCPOA—the European Union, Russia, China, and of course, Iran—consider their respective positions.