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.