Why the “Snap Back” Provision is the Most Brilliant Part of the Iran Deal

One of the biggest challenges to American and European negotiators during the Iran nuclear talks was the question of how to reimpose the sanctions if Iran was credibly found to be cheating. This is called a “snap back” provision — i.e. the sanctions would somehow snap back into place if Iran was in non-compliance.

Something like this has never been used before in such a high stakes international diplomacy, so the diplomats in Vienna had to be inventive.

The most crippling set of UN sanctions were imposed in 2010 and are largely what compelled Iran to the negotiating table. The thing is, in 2010 the Security Council–namely Russia and the USA–were on much better terms than they are now. The prospect of the Security Council unifying again around a sweeping set of sanctions is much dimmer in today’s geo-political environment.

Still, negotiators wanted some sort of assurance that if Iran cheats, it will face punishment. And that no single country on the Security Council (namely Russia) could veto the re-imposition of sanctions.

What negotiators in Vienna came up with was a highly unusual and sort of brilliant workaround.

The deal signed this morning creates an eight member panel, called the “Joint Commission” to serve as a dispute resolution mechanism. The members of the panel are the five veto-wielding members of the Security Council, plus Germany, Iran and the European Union. There are eight members total. If a majority (5) finds Iran to be cheating, the issue is referred to the Security Council. No single country has a veto.

And here is where things get interesting. The language of the nuclear deal says that the vote in the Security Council would not be to reimpose sanctions. Rather, the Security Council must decide whether or not to continue lifting the sanctions. And if they fail to do so, the old sanctions are snapped back into place. This framing obviates the prospect of a Russian veto, and it all but assures that if the Western countries believe that Iran is cheating, sanctions will automatically be re-imposed.


Here’s the text:

Upon receipt of the notification from the complaining participant, as described above, including a description of the good-faith efforts the participant made to exhaust the dispute resolution process specified in this JCPOA, the UN Security Council, in accordance with its procedures, shall vote on a resolution to continue the sanctions lifting. If the resolution described above has not been adopted within 30 days of the notification, then the provisions of the old UN Security Council resolutions would be re-imposed, unless the UN Security Council decides otherwise. In such event, these provisions would not apply with retroactive effect to contracts signed between any party and Iran or Iranian individuals and entities prior to the date of application, provided that the activities contemplated under and execution of such contracts are consistent with this JCPOA and the previous and current UN Security Council resolutions. The UN Security Council, expressing its intention to prevent the reapplication of the provisions if the issue giving rise to the notification is resolved within this period, intends to take into account the views of the States involved in the issue and any opinion on the issue of the Advisory Board. Iran has stated that if sanctions are reinstated in whole or in part, Iran will treat that as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part.

Later this week, the Security Council will formally endorse the deal, including the snap back provision. And when it does, Iran will have a very big incentive to comply with the accord — no individual member of the Security Council can extend Tehran a lifeline.