5 Questions: Richard Nephew on Iran Sanctions

January 18, 2018
Richard Nephew in a light blue button-down shirt and purple tie

The Iran nuclear deal is safe-for now. On Jan. 12, the Trump Administration continued the waiver of sanctions that, if imposed, could have killed the agreement.

Sanctions relief is a core component of the deal formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, said Richard Nephew, senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy, who before coming to Columbia in 2015 was principal deputy coordinator for sanctions policy at the U.S. State Department and a lead sanctions expert for the team that negotiated with Iran. Without the waiver, Iran loses its incentive to stay in the deal, he said, and the International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed that Iran is complying with its terms.

Had the waiver not been extended, there also would have been a direct impact on U.S. allies that resumed doing business or investing in Iran, forcing them to abandon those businesses or risk U.S. sanctions themselves. It could have precipitated a geopolitical crisis, Nephew added. The waived sanctions affect foreign oil purchases, insurance, shipping, banking, and oil and gas investment. Other sanctions prevent Americans from doing business in Iran and bar foreign companies that do business with Iran from doing business in the U.S.

Nephew’s book The Art of Sanctions, A View from the Field, about how sanctions work and how to measure their effectiveness, was published in December by Columbia University Press as part of the Center for Global Energy Policy Series. Iran is just one of dozens of countries and groups facing U.S. sanctions.

Q. Why do countries impose sanctions?

A. All foreign policy is essentially trying to get other people to do what you want and finding sources of leverage to do so. Sanctions are a middle space between diplomacy - do this because it’s the right thing to do, because we have a relationship, because we’re allies, because it’s a danger to the world otherwise - and force – you should do this or we’ll kill you. Sanctions, defined broadly, have been around for as long as civilizations have tried to gain an upper hand without resorting to force, starting with the Ancient Greeks in 432 BC.

Q. What is the objective of the sanctions on Iran?

A. This is part of the problem. There are many differing objectives. They include getting Iran to change its behavior with regard to terrorism, regional issues, human rights violations and weapons proliferation (its nuclear program and the missile program). Some believe the only way for sanctions to be effective is as part of a policy for regime change. Others think the objective is to put pressure on the Iranian government so they discontinue certain activities. I’m in that camp.

Q. What happens next, now that Trump has extended sanctions relief?

A. There’s still a lot of uncertainty. Some of the sanctions get reviewed after 120 days, some after 180 days, and the waiver itself gets reviewed every 90 days. There are decisions to be made in April, May, July, September and on throughout the year. One of my colleagues has calculated that there will be 20 separate decisions just this year. That’s a lot of time for the President to do nothing, or for an escalation of tensions.

Q. What about North Korea? Can sanctions be effective there?

A. There are both U.N. Security Council and U.S. sanctions against North Korea. But North Korea is not going to negotiate away its nuclear program or its missile program, it’s too essential to its security. The best we can do is use sanctions to negotiate restraint – no nuclear tests or ICBM tests in 2018, so the situation is more stable – and in time move on to arms control and maybe even denuclearization. Sanctions don’t work without a political and diplomatic strategy. Right now, Trump and his team take the position that it’s unacceptable for North Korea to have nuclear weapons, but there must a commitment to explore what may be possible.

Q. Are there dangers in imposing sanctions?

A. There is an unfortunate tendency in American political thought that if something works once just do it again and again and again. If we make it too hard to do business in too many ways and in too many places, there’s a very real risk that we could cause ourselves economic harm and political harm, limiting our ability to interact in the global economy and also limiting the effectiveness of our sanctions.

—By Georgette Jasen