Iran: Deadline Day For The Iran Deal?

Last Updated: 25 April 2018
Article by Patrick Murphy

As deadlines loom for the renewal of key US sanctions waivers, what might the consequences be of President Trump's threat to "nix" the Iran deal?

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the clunkily named nuclear deal reached between the P5+1 (the permanent 5 UN Security Council members plus Germany) and Iran, was, like many complex pieces of international diplomacy, a necessarily imperfect creation born out of compromise and necessity.

Aside from its utilitarian moniker, it was dependent for its survival on continued waivers of US secondary sanctions by the US President (a function of the congressional approval of the deal in the first place). It was also limited – quite deliberately – in the scope of its ambition: it did not seek to settle disputes concerning Iranian intervention in regional conflicts, Iran's human rights record or its ballistic missile program. And, much to the chagrin of Iran hawks in the US and elsewhere, the sunset clauses place no restriction on Iran's uranium enrichment after the first 15 years of the deal. From the Iranian side, whilst it provided relief against EU sanctions and US extraterritorial secondary sanctions, it offered Iran no access to the US economy or, crucially, the US dollar denominated financial system.

But, imperfect as it was, it did result in the destruction of Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium and afforded the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) access to Iran's nuclear sites to verify continued Iranian compliance. And it has allowed Iran access to major European investment in Iran, including high profile deals struck with Airbus and French oil major Total.

In any event, some of the lingering congenital defects would not have mattered as much, or at all, were it not for other extraneous events. For example, it was always intended by the Obama administration that the JCPOA would be a starting point for further discussions and deals on other areas of difference once the nuclear boil was lanced; negotiating the nuclear settlement was lengthy enough without complicating the negotiations further by involving issues such as Syria and ballistic missiles. And continued sanctions waivers were never thought to be seriously in doubt, even as the Trump campaign gained momentum throughout 2016. The State and Treasury Department reach out sessions following Implementation Day emphasised that the political consequences of a US lead snapback would be so serious that the next President would balk at tearing it up, even if that President was a candidate who described the deal as the "worst ever".

Fix it or nix it

Even after further criticism of the deal from the newly inaugurated President Trump, that conclusion seemed to hold good. Early forays into extending sanctions against Iran with SDN designations in February 2017 were limited in scope. They did not designate Iranian financial institutions or state owned enterprises. Indeed, they were no different in character to some of the late Obama administration's post Implementation Day Iran designations. Many concluded that moderate voices within the administration had managed to constrain the President's more hawkish impulses.

But recent personnel changes amongst the President's close advisors, and the lack of much perceived benefit from the deal in Iran, mean that the defects matter much more now. The appointment of two key Iran sceptics, John Bolton (national security advisor) and Mike Pompeo (Secretary of State) mean that President Trump now has core of foreign policy advisors in place who share his dim view of Iran deal. The President is now determined to "fix" the perceived failings of the Iran deal or "nix" it.

There is, therefore, a very real fear that President Trump will refuse to renew the next set of waivers that are due to expire on 12 May 2018. Those waivers apply to the secondary sanctions contained in the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) 2012 which provides for penalties against foreign financial institutions that engage in significant financial transactions with Iran's central bank. Further secondary sanctions on the provision of significant support to Iran's energy, shipping, shipbuilding sectors or the provision of insurance and reinsurance or refined petroleum products to Iran, which apply under other congressional acts, are due to expire in July 2018 unless the waivers are renewed.

But Iran has its own JCPOA hawks, and the risk is that an abrogation of the JCPOA by the US through a failure to renew the NDAA waivers in May will provide just the excuse they are waiting for to precipitate an Iranian reaction that effectively ends the JCPOA as a meaningful deal.

Caught in the middle

That concerns the EU greatly. The EU sees the JCPOA as the most effective way to stop Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon, and precipitating a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that will potentially involve Gulf Arab states, Turkey as well as Israel. As the EU points out, the IAEA has repeatedly confirmed substantial Iranian compliance with the terms of the deal. More immediately, however, it could see European companies that have chosen to engage with Iran since Implementation Day exposed to US secondary sanctions for the first time.

The US did not relax its own self-denying sanctions preventing US persons dealing with Iran after Implementation Day; only the secondary sanctions affecting non-US persons. By contrast the EU lifted most of its general restrictions on trade with Iran except for those on controlled good or remaining designated persons. As a result, European companies that have been able to find means of getting paid (not an easy task when US dollar transactions are still proscribed) have engaged with Iran more enthusiastically – a fact that is no doubt not lost on a President currently jostling with the EU over aluminium tariffs. Any unilateral re-imposition of US secondary sanctions could impact these European companies significantly. The recent application of US secondary sanctions against certain Russian companies and oligarchs illustrates some of the problems that this can cause.

Historically the threat of a divergence between the US and EU over Iran has never been a problem. The two have managed to proceed in concert with each other so that US sanctions which unilaterally sought to regulate or restrict trade and investment activities carried out by persons outside the US were mirrored by the EU's own regulations and restrictions on what EU persons are able to do. But there are earlier precedents for transatlantic fallings out over the extraterritoriality of US sanctions.

In the 1980s the US imposed sanctions on companies doing business on a Russian pipeline in Eastern Europe, provoking a diplomatic falling out. And in 1996 the Helms-Burton Act, which, amongst other things, imposed penalties upon non-US persons "trafficking" in Cuban property formerly owned by US persons, provoked a furious response from the EC which launched blocking legislation and a WTO panel investigation alleging that the extraterritorial restriction of trade between the EC and Cuba breached various provisions of the GATT and GATS. The US countered that it was prepared to rely on the rarely used national security exemption in the GATT. The dispute was only withdrawn after high level political compromise.

But the prospect of a large scale transatlantic trade dispute over Iran occurring at the same time as a US / EU dispute over US aluminium tariffs and extraterritorial Russia sanctions is deeply concerning for the EU.

To that end the EU has even been looking at further potential sanctions against Iran for ballistic missile activities. The rather circular logic is that new sanctions might persuade President Trump that the EU is being tough enough on Iran to renew the waivers in May and may actually save the Iran deal. The EU recently renewed its existing human rights sanctions against Iran, which date back to 2011 and which impose asset freezes and bans on exports of equipment which might be used in internal repression. However, a recent meeting of EU foreign ministers failed to reach any agreement on the imposition of new sanctions against Iran. The clock continues ticking towards 12 May.

The Dispute Settlement Process

So what would happen if the US failed to renew the waivers of the NDAA sanctions that expire in May? The JCPOA obliges the US not only to cease the application of its secondary sanctions program but to "continue to do so". A failure to renew the waivers could therefore in theory amount to a breach of the terms of the agreement. Iran could then refer the issue to the JCPOA dispute settlement mechanism, which is a largely consensual process.

The question of US compliance would first be considered by the Joint Commission established under Annex IV of the JCPOA, which consists of the participants from each JCPOA signatory (including Russia and China). The Joint Commission must make decisions by consensus, which would presumably mean that no decision would be made confirming US non-compliance (or no decision would be made within the mandated 15 days). This would then presumably precipitate an escalation to the next level; an Iranian referral of the question of US compliance to a three person advisory board. The board would consist of one person appointed by each of the US and Iran and a third independent person appointed by the first two.

The advisory board can issue a non-binding opinion on the compliance issue and must do so within 15 days. The Joint Commission will then consider the non-binding opinion for a further 5 days to try to resolve the dispute by consensus again. If the dispute has not been resolved to Iran's satisfaction, and if Iran deems the refusal to renew the NDAA waivers as "significant" non-performance, Iran could at that point treat the unresolved issue as grounds to cease performing its commitments under the JCPOA in whole or in part and / or notify the UN Security Council that it believes the issue constitutes significant non-performance.

A referral to the UN Security Council would mean that it must vote on whether to continue the sanctions relief provided by UN Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015) which endorsed the JCPOA and disapplied six previous UN resolutions imposing sanctions against Iran. Under the JCPOA dispute resolution mechanism and Resolution 2231 itself, unless the UN Security Council votes in favour of continuing the sanctions relief, the six former UN resolutions will "snap back" into force automatically. As a veto wielding permanent member of the UN Security Council, the US could, therefore, force the snap back of previous UN sanctions simply by exercising its veto.

Diplomatic manoeuvres

There are clearly options and opportunities throughout this process for diplomacy and deal making to vary the procedure above. Whilst Iran has already hinted, most recently through its Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, that it would probably react by restarting production of enriched Uranium, it might nonetheless choose to use the fact that some of the waivers expire in May and others in July to bide its time before actually withdrawing from the deal.

It could perhaps choose to take the process through the Joint Commission and advisory board stages, until it reached a point at which it could claim that the unresolved dispute was US non-performance. That point would be reached in mid to late June. It could then refrain from referring the dispute to the Security Council and perhaps even confirm its continued performance (for the time being) despite the lapse of US waivers in May. That would avoid an automatic "snap back" of UN sanctions, or the risk that the US could treat an Iranian abrogation as non-performance and refer the matter to the Security Council itself.

Iran could then utilise the remaining weeks before the next US waivers expire to rally support from concerned EU signatories, perhaps even relying on a potentially positive advisory board opinion, to garner diplomatic sympathy for its position. It would then have a further opportunity to go through the JCPOA dispute resolution process in July if those diplomatic efforts failed and the other waivers were not renewed.

Of course, it is equally possible that Iran's own hardliners gratefully accept any failure to renew waivers in May as the excuse that they have been waiting for to finally tear up the deal. And no-one can rule out a last gasp left-field intervention from the US President himself that changes everyone's calculations.

No doubt such diplomatic brinksmanship will cause investors and exporters to Iran to be reaching for their contracts and examining any "snap back" provisions. Would a limited US re-imposition of NDAA secondary sanctions, in the absence of any other secondary sanction re-imposition - let alone any EU sanctions or UN sanctions - constitute a "snap back"? The answer, of course, will depend on what sort of trading relationship is concerned and how the actual clause is drafted. Some are drafted very mechanically requiring specific events to occur; others are more subjective and only require one party to reasonably consider their position is affected by unspecified sanctions. As ever, close attention is required before making any decisions about terminating contracts.

But it is clear that the coming weeks and months will be a rollercoaster ride for all affected.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Related Topics
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Related Articles
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Mondaq Free Registration
Gain access to Mondaq global archive of over 375,000 articles covering 200 countries with a personalised News Alert and automatic login on this device.
Mondaq News Alert (some suggested topics and region)
Select Topics
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of

To Use you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions