America’s latest wave of Iran sanctions

The US has re-imposed its sanctions on Iran; the final part of our sanctions mini-series explains how the US will implement them

On 5 November, the Trump administration’s latest and most significant wave of sanctions against Iran came into effect. The US Treasury has issued a list of more than 700 Specially Designated Nationals (SDNs) and Blocked Persons, which includes roughly 300 entities that did not feature in Obama-era sanctions. The designations combine with a series of briefings from senior US administration officials, along with fact sheets and guidelines from the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Below is an overview what we know so far about how the US will implement its sanctions. 

Follow the ECFR sanctions series:

In this series of commentaries, ECFR assesses the likely impact of US sanctions on economic ties between Europe and Iran, covering strategically important areas such as trade in essential goods, energy, and banking. The series examines how European governments can minimise the fallout of their attempts to maintain Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal.

Part 1: Trump’s Iran sanctions: an explainer on their impact for Europe
Part 2: Iran: The case for protecting humanitarian trade
Part 3: Can Iran weather the oil-sanctions storm?
Part 4: Bankless task: can Europe stay connected to Iran?
Part 5: Iran oil exports: 8 waivers and the upcoming OPEC meeting

Waivers allow Iran to maintain some of its oil exports

American sanctions targeting Iran’s oil exports and related banking activity will cause many companies and countries to halt or reduce their purchases of Iranian oil. The US administration has stressed that, in contrast to Obama-era measures, the latest sanctions target Iranian condensate as much as crude oil, thereby affecting another source of energy revenue.

Yet the US administration has issued Significant Reduction Exemptions (SREs) to eight countries: China, India, Italy, Greece, Japan, South Korean, Turkey, and Taiwan. Iraq did not receive an SRE, but obtained a waiver to continue purchasing Iranian electricity.

The United States did not issue a formal response to the joint letter from the E3 (Germany, France, and the United Kingdom) issued in June 2018 to request that EU companies be exempt from secondary sanctions. Other EU member states were surprised that Italy and Greece obtained waivers, suggesting that they separately negotiated country-specific rather than EU-wide exemptions. That China sought a waiver indicates that it may be avoiding confrontation with the US as it seeks to sustain trade with Iran.

The US authorities will review these waivers periodically (it is unclear when), requiring recipient countries to prove that they have substantially reduced their imports of Iranian oil (under Obama-era sanctions, these reductions were around 20 percent). According to Secretary of State Pompeo, two of the countries will eventually “completely end imports as part of their agreements”, but – again – the timing is unclear.

The US has abandoned its stated objective of reducing Iran’s oil exports to “zero”, seemingly due to concerns that this would cause a spike in global oil prices. However, revenues from Iran’s oil sales will be held in escrow accounts and can only be used for trade in humanitarian goods or other non-sanctioned products. As such, the US administration is insisting that its oil waivers are still consistent with its aim of ensuring that Iran’s government has “zero oil revenue” that can be used for “malign activity” in the region.

Banking measures allow for limited humanitarian trade

While most Iranian financial institutions are subject to US secondary sanctions, a few of Iran’s private banks are exempt from these measures. In principle, these banks can facilitate humanitarian trade even with US companies, a situation akin to that prior to the implementation of the sanctions relief that followed the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Until recently, four private companies were responsible for facilitating nearly all of Iran’s humanitarian trade: Parsian Bank, Middle East Bank, Saman Bank, and Pasargad Bank. But, on 16 October, the US Treasury named Parsian Bank as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. This new measure bans the bank from facilitating humanitarian trade. Responding to the designation, Kourosh Parvizian, Parsian’s CEO, described the new sanctions as a “mistake” that threatened “a bank that handles the transactions behind the majority of imports of foodstuffs, medicine and other humanitarian trade items for the Iranian people.”

The US clearly intended the designation of Parsian Bank to send a message to the Iranian financial system and its international counterparties. Commenting on the thin grounds for designating the bank a terrorist organisation, sanctions attorneys have expressed concern about the US Treasury’s approach to humanitarian trade.

The Parsian designation will loom over the remaining entities engaged in humanitarian trade with Iran, reminding them that the US could block their access to the international financial system at any moment. For now, the White House has not applied new terrorism- or proliferation-related designations to Middle East Bank, Pasargad Bank, or Saman Bank. This is crucial to these companies’ capacity to facilitate humanitarian trade.

OFAC guidelines state: “broadly speaking, transactions for the sale of agricultural commodities, food, medicine, or medical devices to Iran are not sanctionable unless they involve persons on the SDN List that have been designated in connection with Iran’s support for international terrorism or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” Companies that use these banks to conduct transactions for humanitarian trade must ensure that no other SDN-listed entities are involved in this trade.

Overall, the manner in which the US has reimposed sanctions allows humanitarian trade to continue. But the US has not taken any steps to actively safeguard vital trade in food and medicine, leaving European companies in the lurch about the risks involved in humanitarian trade linked with Iran and placing the citizens of Iran under intense pressure.

Partly to address this urgent problem, Switzerland is negotiating directly with the US authorities to create a humanitarian banking channel with Iran. Under Obama-era sanctions, several small Swiss merchant banks maintained ties with the likes of Parsian, Middle East Bank, Saman, and Pasargad. That the Swiss government now considers it necessary to intervene could indicate that these Swiss banks are more reluctant to engage with Iranian companies due to the Trump administration’s aggressive stance on all Iran-related commerce. Home to several major pharmaceuticals manufacturers, food companies, and commodities traders, Switzerland is perhaps Iran’s most important partner in humanitarian trade.

Iran’s access to SWIFT has been significantly restricted but not blocked

For several months, there has been widespread speculation about whether the US would pressure Belgium-based financial messaging organisation SWIFT to block payments from all Iranian banks. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin noted the US has required SWIFT to disconnects any Iranian entity that the country designates as a terrorist or proliferation entity. For now, a handful of Iranian banks that are not subject to designations will likely remain connected to SWIFT.

On Monday, SWIFT stated that it would suspend some Iranian banks’ access to its network, noting “this step, while regrettable, has been taken in the interest of the stability and integrity of the wider global financial system”. The move is unsurprising given Mnuchin’s warning that “SWIFT would be subject to US sanctions if it provides financial messaging services to certain designated Iranian financial institutions”. Thus, it is possible that there will be a showdown between the European Union and the US if SWIFT decides not to disconnect all targeted Iranian entities and the US Treasury responds with sanctions against the organisation.

Expanded targeting of civilian aircraft and maritime vessels

American sanctions on aircraft belonging to Iran Air, the country’s national carrier, will complicate its operations. Under Obama-era sanctions, such measures made it difficult for Iran Air to receive ground handling and refuelling services at many European airports. This forced Iran Air planes flying between Europe and Iran to refuel in third countries.

Notably, the US Treasury has targeted Iran Air’s recently acquired ATR regional aircraft, which largely conduct domestic flights. The move may be designed to complicate maintenance of the aircraft, increasing safety risks for Iranian passengers.

The US Treasury has also sanctioned a wide range of Iranian oil tankers, as well as other cargo vessels and container ships. This will restrict Iran’s ability to engage in trade, as ports may refuse to service the vessels.

Civilian nuclear cooperation is permitted in limited cases

The US has placed the Atomic Energy Agency Organization of Iran on its SDN list, subjecting it to secondary sanctions. The organisation is the main entity responsible for implementing Iran’s nuclear-related obligations under the JCPOA.

To fully comply with the agreement, Iran must make several adjustments to its nuclear programme, such as redesigning its heavy water reactor at Arak and converting the Fordow enrichment facility into a research complex. To carry out this technical work, Iran is cooperating with the United Kingdom, China, and Russia.

The US has clarified that “all nuclear cooperation with Iran, except for the limited activities for which waivers are being granted, will be sanctionable”. Nonetheless, the US has granted sanctions waivers to non-proliferation projects at Arak, Bushehr, and Fordow facilities, noting that “each of the waivers we are granting is conditional on the cooperation of the various stakeholders”.

The US is monitoring Europe’s planned SPV

In response to America’s reimposition of sanctions this year, the EU and E3 governments reiterated their intention to create a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV), a new mechanism to facilitate trade with Iran while reducing Iranian reliance on the international financial system. European officials still hope to legally establish the SPV in the coming weeks, but the mechanism is unlikely to become operational for several months. When asked by reporters about the SPV, US policy adviser Brian Hook noted that the “United States will not hesitate to sanction any sanctionable activity in connection with our Iran sanctions regime”.

European governments could establish an SPV to facilitate humanitarian trade alone, thereby minimising the risk that the US will target the mechanism. But it appears that they are planning a single SPV that would include trade the US regards as sanctionable.

That the White House has issued some waivers to allow for civil nuclear cooperation with Iran signals its desire to maintain the JCPOA’s limitations on Iran without allowing the country any of the tangible economic benefits envisaged under the deal. According to one senior Iranian official, unless the remaining JCPOA parties can provide Iran with a meaningful economic package in the coming months, Tehran is likely to re-evaluate its stance on the agreement. In this respect, it is crucial that Europe demonstrates its ability to successfully launch the SPV and, together with China and Russia, takes both economic and political measures to signal that the JCPOA can weather the American sanctions storm.

Ellie Geranmayeh is Senior Policy Fellow and Deputy Head of the MENA Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. 

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj is the founder of the media company Bourse and Bazaar and has spent the last five years working on business diplomacy projects between the West and Iran.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Visiting Fellow
Deputy Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.