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Richard Nephew: US non-compliance with Iran deal to undermine use of sanctions

TEHRAN (Tasnim) – A former US official who led a campaign to construct the global sanctions wall around Iran says if US is viewed as not abiding by its commitments under the nuclear deal, its ability to use such coercive measures as a tool in the the future will be undermined.

Richard Nephew has been called “US architect of Iran sanctions”, for his role in spinning a web of sanctions around Iran during his tenure as director for Iran at the US National Security Council from August 2013 to December 2014. He was also the lead sanctions expert on the US negotiating team at the Iran nuclear talks.

In an exclusive interview with Tasnim News Agency on Friday, Mr. Nephew commented on different issues surrounding the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, known as JCPOA, and sections relief.

The full text of the interview is as follows:

Tasnim: As you know, Iran is complaining that the United States has not been doing enough after the official implementation in January of JCPOA to fulfill the sanctions-relief promises under the deal. You hold, chiming with the official White House line, that US has been in full compliance of the commitments under the deal.

On the other side, we have European banks and companies saying that they don’t believe they can do business in the Islamic Republic without triggering US sanctions. Moreover, the Associated Press has said in a May 12 report that the “foreign governments, banks and other companies want written clarification from the US Treasury Department — essentially a guarantee they won’t be punished” for doing legitimate business with Iran.

Can you please elaborate on why the United States refrains from issuing such written clarifications to end the uncertainties that make international banks reluctant to process Iranian-linked transactions?

Nephew: Well, I think the answer starts with: the United States has ALREADY issued a written clarification that it would not sanction those engaging in legitimate, non-sanctionable trade with Iran.  This started with the JCPOA, which outlines the sanctions relief, and the various frequently asked questions documents and policy statements that the Treasury Department has released.  In fact, the Treasury Department just released an updated version of its frequently asked questions document last Friday (October 7).

The problem here is frankly not with the clarifications offered.  There are two problems.  The first is that some banks don’t just want a clarification that they will not be punished for doing legitimate trade with Iran.  They want protection from all sanctions for any trade with Iran.  And that is simply not possible. The JCPOA did not provide for full removal of all US sanctions (as Iran’s negotiators knew full well) and Iran’s policies have not permitted the sanctions to be removed for their own merits.  The second problem is that Iran itself has not provided banks with confidence that, should they do business with Iran, they won’t be involved in business with illegal activities or actors.

If Iran wants to be part of the global banking system, it needs to adhere to global banking rules and that means providing foreign banks with confidence that they are not going to do business that might facilitate corruption, terrorism, money laundering and so forth.  These are not just US demands; these standards have been endorsed by friends of Iran, like Russia and China.

Tasnim: The declared US strategy to allay the above-mentioned concerns by international banks has been to encourage Iran trade at meetings with representatives of the top banks. This approach has proved ineffective so far, with HSBC chief legal officer, Stuart Levey who was formerly the undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the US Treasury Department, even accusing US of taking ‘a very odd position’ by asking Europe’s banks to engage with Iran while restricting US firms from doing so.

Taking these facts into account, what other steps could Washington take, beyond those taken so far, to urge European bankers to make a push into Iran?

Nephew: As I said, I think that the United States has done what it can to provide clarity on sanctions.  I think that what is really needed now is effort by Iran’s banking system to rebuild confidence.  That will take time, but it also takes resolve and a decision by Iran’s leaders (and its banking system) to adhere to global standards.

That aside, I think that there are some steps that the United States could take to provide more detailed guidance on individual transactions.  I support licensing compliance professionals, lawyers, and consultants in the United States to provide advice and support for those in Europe seeking to do business in Iran legally.  And, I think that the United States should be receptive to specific, identifiable solutions to specific, identifiable problems.

Tasnim: Gérard Araud, French ambassador to the United States, wrote in his Twitter page months ago, quote, “If the Iranians don’t benefit from the lifting of sanctions, why should they respect the deal?” He also noted that “the over compliance of the banks is emptying the lifting of sanctions of a large part of its content.”

Here we have France, one of the key US partners in the JCPOA as well as in the enforcement of anti-Iran sanctions, admitting that the world powers’ promise to lift Iran sanctions has not been fulfilled. As an expert whose research focus is on the use of sanctions for deterrence, don’t you think that if US is seen as impeding the implementation of the deal – be it an unrealistic judgement based on perceptions or a fact based on the realities on the ground – its international credibility and hence its corresponding ability to use sanctions in the future would be undermined?

Nephew: I do share the view that sanctions must be seen to be behavior-based and that the United States be seen as fulfilling its commitments.  I think that positive views and the long term use of sanctions as a tool will be damaged if this is not the case and will be enhanced if it is.

That said, I disagree with the notion that Iran hasn’t benefited.  Iran’s economy has stabilized whereas before it was collapsing.  New business deals are being planned and contracts are being negotiated.  This has not happened as swiftly as Iran’s leaders promised but, then, they probably promised things would happen much faster than was ever possible.

Just as American supporters of the deal had to accept that it would not cover other objectionable areas of Iranian policy, Iranian supporters should have accepted that — since it was not a global deal, covering all of sanctions and all of US concerns with Iranian policy — sanctions would remain and would have an impact.  This means that, just as Americans have had to accept continued support for Assad (for example), Iran will have to accept that its economy will not improve nearly as quickly as it might have.

And, of course, it is also important to note that Iran itself has other problems beyond sanctions!  Over-regulation, complicated regulation, and security policies (such as those involving the arrest of dual nationals) have not helped Iran’s economy.

Tasnim: As you know, The Treasury Department has published new guidance for foreign companies doing business with Iran. However, there’s been controversy over whether the new document leads to the ease of some of the remaining sanctions against Iran. While the Obama administration has said that it is not intended to further ease the sanctions, some others argue that the revised language removes a blanket ban on foreign transactions with Iranian firms that may be controlled by a person who remains subject to US sanctions. What’s your opinion on the issue?

Nephew: The regulations and guidance are clear: the only clarification relates to ownership of companies, which has been set by US law for years.  Those arguing that this is new sanctions relief are doing so on the basis of a political view, not the facts.

By Tasnim News Agency