President Biden couldn’t lift all Iran sanctions if he wanted to, says Trump envoy

Elliott Abrams says the comprehensive sanctions structure means a change of leadership won’t alter reality for Tehran anytime soon

US Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, testifies during a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on US Policy in the Middle East on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on September 24, 2020. (Photo by Susan Walsh / POOL / AFP)
Powered by automated translation

If former Vice President Joe Biden wins the November 3 election, it will be neither simple nor swift for his administration to remove sanctions on Tehran, US Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela Elliott Abrams told The National.

Mr Abrams, who served in four different administrations including that of President Donald Trump, said US sanctions on Iran, especially those imposed outside the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), will not be lifted anytime soon.

"Those who believe that a President Biden could come to office in January and by the second or third day all sanctions will be gone, will find out that it's not feasible even if they wanted to do it," Mr Abrams said in an interview with The National.

“The US now has a comprehensive sanctions structure in place that will stay for a while.”

Some of those sanctions have been imposed since 1979 and have nothing to do with Iran’s nuclear programme. “In some of these cases we put sanctions in place under counterterrorism authorities … to lift those sanctions requires stating that Iran is not engaged in supporting terror. So how do you reverse that? No, you don’t,” Mr Abrams argued.

The US envoy was reluctant to get into US politics and what Mr Biden would do with the 2015 nuclear deal that America left under the Trump administration two years ago.

When pressed, he said he hoped that a Democratic administration would look at the holistic picture with Iran and not just the nuclear programme. “I do hope everyone has learnt a lesson from JCPOA that merely doing some form of a nuclear agreement with Iran is insufficient because we did see what Iran did when it received lots of cash [after JCPOA] – their military budget jumped up.

“Any agreement has to include Iran’s regional behaviour and its ballistic missiles programme,” he said.

Mr Abrams also pointed out that the sunset clause set to expire between 2026 and 2031 in the JCPOA “was much too short and in any new agreement we have to stretch out the number of years.”

The sunset clauses were agreements within the JCPOA that would lift some of the various restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme after a set time.

He also hoped that if a Biden administration comes in “they would use the immense leverage that the US now has over this regime.”

But, if Mr Trump wins a second term, the US envoy said he was convinced that Iran would come to the negotiating table, crediting that to the economic pressure from the White House on Tehran in recent years.

“The regime has enormous challenges, the value of the rial is dropping … the regime knows if it has free elections it will be out, and it knows it cannot take four more years of the kind of sanctions that we have put in place. They are going to have to negotiate,” Mr Abrams said.

He said Mr Trump would then seek an agreement “that locks [off] the nuclear weapon path”.

Asked about Iran claiming a victory from the UN arms embargo expiring on October 18, Mr Abrams said it wasn’t. “It is not a victory for them because we, the US, have snapped back sanctions, and the European Union maintains its full sanctions on arms transfers from and to Iran.

"Before the Iranians claim victory they should see what happens if they try these arms transfers," he said, citing the executive order from Mr Trump that would allow for additional broad sanctions.

On Russian-Iranian chatter that Moscow could sell Iran the S-400 missile defence system, Mr Abrams described the prospect as almost impossible financially for Tehran.

“It would be very difficult for Iran. The impact of our sanctions has been able to deprive them, by our estimate, of $150 billion dollars. When Turkey bought the S-400 it paid the Russians $2.5 billion cash, I don’t think you are going to see this kind of transaction because Iranians don’t really have that kind of money.”

He said if it were to happen, it would be sanctionable. “We can sanction anyone all along the trail in such a transaction. Those who sell, those who negotiate, those who ship, finance, those provide any services.”

And if Iran sells Venezuela long-range missiles, Mr Abrams said other options besides sanctions would be on the table. “When it comes to long-range missiles that could reach the US from Venezuela, such a transfer is unacceptable and we will not tolerate it. We are not going to permit it, the president has lots of options and we will do whatever is needed to prevent it,” he said.

But experts who follow the Iran file consider the failure to renew the arms embargo as detrimental to US diplomacy.

Brian O’Toole, a fellow at The Atlantic Council, and a former Treasury official, said the Trump administration eroded leverage on Iran by pulling out of the JCPOA.

"We [the US] had leverage while negotiating the JCPOA because we had unified the international community behind it … we don't have the support of any of them on this," he told The National.

“If you can’t get the Europeans to sit down on a table with you and negotiate … then the Iranians have leverage. Had the US stayed in the deal or made a good-faith effort with the Europeans on humanitarian transactions, the arms embargo discussion could have been different even though Russia and China may have opposed,” Mr O’Toole said.

But on the issue of sanctions, Mr O’Toole who previously worked at the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), agreed with Mr Abrams that it would be difficult for a future administration to disassemble the sanctions on Iran.

“The essential thesis of the JCPOA is sanctions other than the nuclear file are legitimate. Those that pertain to human rights, regional destabilisation, terrorism, ballistic missiles are front and centre,” he said.

“Every sanction action that the Trump administration took until the official withdrawal from the JCPOA, could have been done under the agreement.”

Mr Biden has tied a return to the deal to Iran’s compliance, which is obscure and leaves plenty of wiggle room, he said.

Lifting the sanctions would depend on their category and when they were imposed. Some were implemented by Presidential Order, others by Congress or State or Treasury. Even the bureaucratic process would be complicated.

“For OFAC-related sanctions, they have to create a federal registrar notice and then they get it approved. If you multiply this by thousands [of OFAC sanctions], that’s a lot of paperwork, which would take a while and is bureaucratically tough,” Mr O’Toole said.