U.S. sanctions have had a substantial effect on Iran’s economy and on some major strategic decisions, but little or no effect on Iran’s regional malign activities. During 2012-2015, when the global community was relatively united in pressuring Iran, Iran’s economy shrank by 9% per year, crude oil exports fell from about 2.5 million barrels per day (mbd) to about 1.1 mbd, and Iran was unable to repatriate more than $120 billion in reserves held in banks abroad. The 2015 multilateral nuclear accord (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) provided Iran broad relief from the international and U.S. secondary sanctions as the U.S. Administration waived relevant sanctions, revoked relevant executive orders (E.O.s), and corresponding U.N. and EU sanctions were lifted. Remaining in place were a general ban on U.S. trade with Iran and sanctions imposed on Iran’s support for regional governments and armed factions, its human rights abuses, its efforts to acquire missile and advanced conventional weapons capabilities, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Some additional sanctions on these entities and activities were made mandatory by the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA, P.L. 115-44), which also increases sanctions on Russia and North Korea.
Under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, nonbinding U.N. restrictions on Iran’s development of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles and a binding ban on its importation or exportation of arms remain in place for several years. However, Iran has continued to support regional armed factions and to develop ballistic missiles despite the U.N. restrictions, and did so even when strict international economic sanctions were in place during 2010-2015.
JCPOA sanctions relief enabled Iran to increase its oil exports to nearly pre-sanctions levels, regain access to foreign exchange reserve funds and reintegrate into the international financial system, achieve about 7% yearly economic growth, attract foreign investments in key sectors, and buy new passenger aircraft. The sanctions relief contributed to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s reelection in the May 19, 2017, vote. Yet, perceived economic grievances still sparked protests in December 2017-January 2018.
On May 8, 2018, President Trump announced that the United States would no longer participate in the JCPOA and that all U.S. secondary sanctions would be reimposed after a maximum “wind- down period” of 180 days (ending November 4, 2018). With that time period expired, all U.S. sanctions, including those on energy or banking transactions with Iran, are back into effect as of November 5, 2018.
The reimposition of U.S. sanctions has begun to harm Iran’s economy as major companies exit the Iranian economy rather than risk being penalized by the United States. Iran’s oil exports are decreasing and difficulties paying Iran for oil with hard currency are evident. The value of Iran’s currency has sharply declined and economic-based unrest has continued, although not to the point where the regime is threatened. But it remains uncertain how extensively Iran’s economy will be damaged, because the European Union and other countries are trying to keep the economic benefits of the JCPOA flowing to Iran in order to persuade Iran to remain in the JCPOA. And, on November 5, the Administration granted exceptions to eight countries that the Administration asserts significantly reduced oil imports from Iran. Exceptions were provided to China and India even though the two countries combined continued to import over 1 million barrels per day of Iranian crude oil in October, thwarting the Administration’s goal of reducing Iranian oil exports “as close to zero as possible.”
Overview and Objectives
U.S. sanctions—and U.S. attempts to achieve imposition of multilateral and international sanctions on Iran—have been a significant component of U.S. Iran policy since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the Shah of Iran, a U.S. ally. In the 1980s and 1990s, U.S. sanctions were intended to try to compel Iran to cease supporting acts of terrorism and to limit Iran’s strategic power in the Middle East more generally. After the mid-2000s, U.S. and international sanctions focused largely on ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program is for purely civilian uses. During 2010-2015, the international community cooperated closely with a U.S.-led and U.N.-authorized sanctions regime in pursuit of the goal of persuading Iran to agree to limits to its nuclear program. Still, sanctions against Iran have multiple objectives and address multiple perceived threats from Iran simultaneously.
Post-JCPOA Status: Iranian Assets Still Frozen, but Some Issues Resolved
U.S. sanctions on Iran were first imposed during the U.S.-Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1981, in the form of executive orders issued by President Jimmy Carter blocking nearly all Iranian assets held in the United States. Many of these assets were unblocked by subsequent orders when the crisis was resolved in early 1981 in accordance with the “Algiers Accords.” Assets still frozen are analyzed below.
U.S.-Iran Claims Tribunal
The Accords established a “U.S.-Iran Claims Tribunal” at the Hague that continues to arbitrate cases resulting from the 1980 break in relations and freezing of some of Iran’s assets. All of the 4,700 private U.S. claims against Iran were resolved in the first 20 years of the Tribunal, resulting in $2.5 billion in awards to U.S. nationals and firms.
The major government-to-government cases involved Iranian claims for compensation for hundreds of foreign military sales (FMS) cases that were halted in concert with the rift in U.S.- Iran relations when the Shah’s government fell in 1979. In 1991, the George H. W. Bush Administration paid $278 million from the Treasury Department Judgment Fund to settle FMS cases involving weapons Iran had received but which were in the United States undergoing repair and impounded when the Shah fell.
On January 17, 2016, the day after Implementation Day of the JCPOA, the United States announced it had settled with Iran for FMS cases involving weaponry the Shah was paying for (funds deposited into a DOD-managed “Iran FMS Trust Fund”) but that was not completed and delivered to Iran when the Shah fell. The Trust Fund had a balance after 1990—the year $200 million was paid to Iran to settle some FMS cases—of about $400 million. Under the 2016 settlement, the United States sent Iran the $400 million balance in Trust Fund plus $1.3 billion in accrued interest, paid from the Department of the Treasury’s “Judgment Fund.” In order not to violate U.S. regulations barring direct U.S. dollar transfers to Iranian banks, the funds were remitted to Iran in late January and early February 2016 in foreign hard currency from the central banks of the Netherlands and of Switzerland. Some remaining claims involving the FMS program with Iran remain under arbitration at the Tribunal.
Other Iranian Assets Frozen
Iranian assets in the United States are blocked under several provisions, including Executive Order 13599 of February 2010. The United States did not commit to unblock any of these assets under the JCPOA. About $1.9 billion in blocked Iranian assets are bonds belonging to Iran’s Central Bank, frozen in a Citibank account in New York belonging to Clearstream, a Luxembourg-based securities firm, in 2008. The funds were blocked on the grounds that Clearstream had improperly allowed those funds to access the U.S. financial system. Another $1.67 billion in principal and interest payments on that account were moved to Luxembourg and are not blocked. About $50 million of Iran’s assets frozen in the United States consists of Iranian diplomatic property and accounts, including the former Iranian embassy in Washington, DC, and 10 other properties in several states, along with related bank accounts.
Among other frozen Iranian assets are real estate holdings of the Assa Company, a UK-chartered entity, which allegedly was maintaining the interests of Iran’s Bank Melli in a 36-story office building in New York City and several other properties around the United States (in Texas, California, Virginia, Maryland, and other parts of New York City). An Iranian foundation, the Alavi Foundation, allegedly is an investor in the properties. The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York blocked these properties in 2009. The Department of the Treasury report avoids valuing real estate holdings, but public sources assess these blocked real estate assets at nearly $1 billion. In June 2017, litigation won the U.S. government control over the New York City office building.
Use of Iranian Assets to Compensate U.S. Victims of Iranian Terrorism
There are a total of about $46 billion in court awards that have been made to victims of Iranian terrorism. These include the families of the 241 U.S. soldiers killed in the October 23, 1983, bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. U.S. funds equivalent to the $400 million balance in the DOD account (see above) have been used to pay a small portion of these judgments. The Algiers Accords apparently precluded compensation for the 52 U.S. diplomats held hostage by Iran from November 1979 until January 1981. The FY2016 Consolidated Appropriation (Section 404 of P.L. 114-113) set up a mechanism for paying damages to the U.S. embassy hostages and other victims of state-sponsored terrorism using settlement payments paid by various banks for concealing Iran-related transactions, and proceeds from other Iranian frozen assets. In April 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court determined the Central Bank assets discussed above could be used to pay the terrorism judgments, and the proceeds from the sale of the frozen real estate assets mentioned above will likely be distributed to victims of Iranian terrorism as well. On the other hand, in March 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that U.S. victims of an Iran-sponsored terrorist attack could not seize a collection of Persian antiquities on loan to a University of Chicago museum to satisfy a court judgment against Iran.
Other past financial disputes include the mistaken U.S. shoot-down on July 3, 1988, of an Iranian Airbus passenger jet (Iran Air flight 655), for which the United States paid Iran $61.8 million in compensation ($300,000 per wage-earning victim, $150,000 per nonwage earner) for the 248 Iranians killed. The United States did not compensate Iran for the airplane itself, although officials involved in the negotiations told CRS in November 2012 that the United States later arranged to provide a substitute used aircraft to Iran.
Executive Order 13599 Impounding Iran-Owned Assets: Post-JCPOA Status Still in Effect
Executive Order 13599, issued February 5, 2012, directs the blocking of U.S.-based assets of entities determined to be “owned or controlled by the Iranian government.” The order was issued to implement Section 1245 of the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 112-81) that imposed secondary U.S. sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank. The Order requires that any U.S.-based assets of the Central Bank of Iran, or of any Iranian government-controlled entity, be blocked by U.S. banks. The order goes beyond the regulations issued pursuant to the 1995 imposition of the U.S. trade ban with Iran, in which U.S. banks are required to refuse such transactions but to return funds to Iran. Even before the issuance of the Order, and in order to implement the ban on U.S. trade with Iran (see below) successive Administrations had designated many entities as “owned or controlled by the Government of Iran.”
Numerous designations have been made under Executive Order 13599, including the June 4, 2013, naming of 38 entities (mostly oil, petrochemical, and investment companies) that are components of an Iranian entity called the “Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order” (EIKO). EIKO was characterized by the Department of the Treasury as an Iranian leadership entity that controls “massive off-the-books investments.”
Sanctions for Iran’s Support for Terrorism and Regional Activities
Most of the hostage crisis-related sanctions were lifted upon resolution of the crisis in 1981. The United States began imposing sanctions against Iran again in the mid-1980s for its support for regional groups committing acts of terrorism. The Secretary of State designated Iran a “state sponsor of terrorism” on January 23, 1984, following the October 23, 1983, bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon by elements that later established Lebanese Hezbollah. This designation triggers substantial sanctions on any nation so designated.
None of the laws or Executive Orders in this section were waived or revoked to implement the JCPOA. No entities discussed in this section were “delisted” from sanctions under the JCPOA.
Sanctions Triggered by Terrorism List Designation
The U.S. naming of Iran as a “state sponsor of terrorism”—commonly referred to as Iran’s inclusion on the U.S. “terrorism list”—triggers several sanctions. The designation is made under the authority of Section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act of 1979 (P.L. 96-72, as amended), sanctioning countries determined to have provided repeated support for acts of international terrorism. The sanctions triggered by Iran’s state sponsor of terrorism designation are as follows:
(1) Restrictions on sales of U.S. dual use items. The restriction—a presumption of denial of any license applications to sell dual use items to Iran—is required by the Export Administration Act, as continued by executive orders under the authority of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, IEEPA. The restrictions are enforced through Export Administration Regulations (EARs) administered by the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) of the Commerce Department.
(2) Ban on direct U.S. financial assistance and arms sales to Iran. Section 620A of the Foreign Assistance Act, FAA (P.L. 87-95) and Section 40 of the Arms Export Control Act (P.L. 95-92, as amended), respectively, bar any U.S. foreign assistance to terrorism list countries. Included in the definition of foreign assistance are U.S. government loans, credits, credit insurance, and Ex-Im Bank loan guarantees. Successive foreign aid appropriations laws since the late 1980s have banned direct assistance to Iran, and with no waiver provisions.
(3) Requirement that the United States vote to oppose multilateral lending. U.S. officials are required to vote against multilateral lending to any terrorism list country by Section 1621 of the International Financial Institutions Act (P.L. 95- 118, as amended [added by Section 327 of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-132)]). Waiver authority is provided.
(4) Withholding of U.S. foreign assistance to countries that assist or sell arms to terrorism list countries. Under Sections 620G and 620H of the Foreign Assistance Act, as added by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (Sections 325 and 326 of P.L. 104-132), the President is required to withhold foreign aid from any country that aids or sells arms to a terrorism list country. Waiver authority is provided. Section 321 of that act makes it a crime for a U.S. person to conduct financial transactions with terrorism list governments.
(5) Withholding of U.S. Aid to Organizations That Assist Iran. Section 307 of the FAA (added in 1985) names Iran as unable to benefit from U.S. contributions to international organizations, and require proportionate cuts if these institutions work in Iran. For example, if an international organization spends 3% of its budget for programs in Iran, then the United States is required to withhold 3% of its contribution to that international organization. No waiver is provided for.
Source: On November 13, 2012, the Administration published in the Federal Register (Volume 77, Number 219) “Policy Guidance” explaining how it implements many of the sanctions, and in particular defining what products and chemicals constitute “petroleum,” “petroleum products,” and “petrochemical products” that are used in the laws and executive orders discussed below. See http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2012-11-13/pdf/2012-27642.pdf.
Source: “U.S. Court Reverses Record Forfeiture Order over Iran Assets.” Associated Press. July 21, 2016.
Source: http://global.factiva.com/hp/printsavews.aspx?pp=Print&hc=Publication; and Department of Treasury announcement of June 4, 2013.