A clause in the nuclear deal suggests that Iran may unilaterally withdraw from the agreement and pursue its military nuclear program if the West attempts to impose sanctions due to violations of the deal, nonproliferation expert Emily Landau of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) wrote today in an op-ed  she co-authored in Ha’aretz.
Landau, who co-wrote the op-ed with Owen Alterman, a research fellow at INSS, referenced the clause in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action  (.pdf), the official name of the deal, that says, ” 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.” The experts cited Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who called the clause “Iran’s nuclear snapback,” and explained how it could work.
Let’s consider two possible scenarios. The first regards sanctions snapping back in the face of an Iranian violation or lack of cooperation. This is supposed to be a mechanism that keeps Iran in line. And if the international powers initiate snapback sanctions in some future scenario, their intent would most likely be to confront the violation, not to end the deal. But the above clause says that Tehran could decide that the reimposed sanctions mean the deal has ended: for Iran, snapback sanctions are a violation of the deal that would justify its exit.
So, if Iran wants to defect, all it needs to do is violate some aspect of the deal – preferably something ambiguous so it can argue that it is not in fact a violation – and wait for the sanctions to snap back. The next step: immediate exit of the deal. And if sanctions are not reimposed, Iran has still gained from the violation while simultaneously exposing international weakness to confront it. Iran can also use this provision as leverage to keep the international powers from calling it out on violations in the first place, so as not to launch this chain of events that would kill the deal. Iran sanctions specialist Mark Dubowitz has already dubbed this “Iran’s nuclear snapback.”
In the second scenario, Iran might be able to look to the part of the sanctions section that addresses the tension between sanctions set at the national level and at the state levels in the United States. The clause says that the U.S. will take action to encourage officials at the state and local levels to take into account changes in national policy on sanctions. But what if those state and local officials do not adhere? Or if confronting them takes a long time? Again, these sanctions could provide an easy pretext for Iran to defect from the deal.
Landau and Alterman pointed out that Iran has pulled out of similar deals in the past when the country determined that the deal no longer served its purposes. The Obama Administration claims that the JCPOA compels Iran to adhere to its terms largely because of the threat of “snapback” sanctions.
In his opening remarks  during Thursday’s hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker (R – Tenn.) referred to this clause as well:
And so what happens—I think all of us figured this out as we went through the deal—right now, we have some leverage, but nine months from now, the leverage shifts to them, because we have a sanction snapback.
What they [Iran] have, if we ever tried to apply that, is what’s called a nuclear snapback.
The way the deal is structured, they can immediately just begin. They can say, “Well, if you add sanctions, we’re out of the deal.” They can immediately snap back. So the leverage shifts to them.
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