UN and EU sanctions on Iran: Targeted authorization, comprehensive implementation

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In 1979 the U.S. authorized an initial set of sanctions against Iran as a response to the hostage crisis in Tehran. Since then, the U.S. has expanded its sanctions by imposing nuclear, human rights, and terrorism-related sanctions against Iran. In 2006, the UNSC authorized nuclear-related sanctions against Iran due to concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. Ultimately, in 2007, the EU authorized nuclear-related sanctions against Iran in compliance with the UNSC Resolutions. Iran and P5+1 were able to put an end to the 13 years dispute over Iran’s nuclear program through the final nuclear deal: Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on 14 July 2015. Shortly after, the UNSC Resolution 2231 was passed in which it endorsed the JCPOA and asked for its full implementation. According to the JCPOA nuclear-related sanctions were lifted after the IAEA presented a positive report on Iran and verified that Iran has met its nuclear commitments.The Trump administration pulled out from the JCPOA and reimposed sanctions later.

The focus of this paper is to describe the contradictions regarding the authorization and implementation of UN and EUso-called targeted sanctions against Iran before the time the nuclear deal was reached.

The Practical Framework of UN targeted sanctions

Some scholars believe that there is a shift from comprehensive to targeted sanctions (Eriksson 2011, 3). In fact, since 1994 all of the sanctions that have been implemented by the UN have been targeted sanctions (Biersteker, Eckert, Tourinho, 2012, 6). The initial motivation for the so-called shift and the high popularity of targeted sanctions has been the desire to prevent the inhumane impacts of comprehensive sanctions.  In other words, the indiscriminate impact of comprehensive sanctions on general populations has made this type of sanction to become greatly unpopular (Cortright and Lopez 2002, 1). The shift from comprehensive to targeted sanctions is supposed to be more ethical and defensible (Eriksson 2011, 1). A targeted sanction “means applying pressure on specific decision-making elites and the companies or entities they control” (Cortright and A. Lopez 2002, 2). According to this definition “targeted sanctions are actor- and issue-oriented” in which specific individuals, commodities and sectors are carefully selected, while comprehensive sanctions are “broad-based and state- and society-oriented” (Eriksson 2011, 3).

There are some conditions which increase the possibility that UN targeted sanctions will act similar to comprehensive sanctions:

  1. If they combined with other UN targeted sanctions
  2. If they combined with state sanctions
  3. If they imposed on core economic infrastructures of the target


The Practical Framework of UN targeted sanctions against Iran

UN targeted sanctions against Iran were triggered by both US policies and the IAEA’s report to the Security Council in 2006 noting Iran’s nuclear program. Despite the targeted authorization of UN sanctions against Iran, they were implemented similar to comprehensive sanctions due to the following conditions:

Combination with other UN targeted sanctions

On 31 July 2006 the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 1696, asking Iran to stop its nuclear enrichment program, and on 23 December 2006 resolution 1737 was passed and made the demand mandatory for Iran. At this time UN targeted sanctions were imposed on Iran by banning the supply of nuclear-related materials and technology, and freezing the assets of related individuals and companies. Each time it was announced that Iran had not complied with the resolutions another resolution and additional sanctions were implemented (Charon 2011, 134-5). UN targeted sanctions against Iran continued through resolutions 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008), 1835 (2008), 1929 (2010) imposing an arms embargo and travel ban, extending individuals’ asset freezes, monitoring the activities of Iranian banks by other states, inspecting Iranian ships and aircraft, banning Iran from any activities related to ballistic missiles, and freezing the assets of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines.

Combination with State Sanctions (unilateral/multilateral)

Iran has been the subject of prolonged unilateral/multilateral state sanctions. In

1979, in response to the hostage-taking of US embassy employees in Tehran, Jimmy Carter banned the purchase of goods from Iran and $12 billion of Iranian assets in the United States were frozen. In 1984 the United States stigmatized Iran as supporter of international terrorism, and in 1996 America raised concerns about Iran’s activities regarding a WMD program by passing ILSA sanctions[1] (Patrick Clawson  in Hass 1998, 85-99). Ever since the first US sanction in 1979, not only have United States unilateral sanctions been extended up until now, but also other countries were successfully triggered by the US to adopt similar policies and form multilateral sanctions against Iran.

In sum, the UN targeted sanctions imposed on Iran since 2006 not only were followed by other UN targeted sanctions, but also have been implemented by a variety of unilateral/multilateral state sanctions begun about forty decades ago.

Impositions on core Economic Infrastructures of Target

In order to recognize the role of sanctioned targets in Iran’s economy, it is advantageous to describe both Iran’s economic characteristics and vulnerabilities.

  • Iran’s economic characteristicsƒf
  1. Rentier state (Oil state): The state’s revenue mostly comes from oil revenue rather than domestic taxation;
  2. Mixed economic system: More than 70% of Iran’s economy is run by the state; the private sector is relatively weak in comparison.
  3. Single product economy: Iran’s economy is mainly based on exporting crude oil and importing consumer products (Yazdanfam 2007, 804-805).
  • Iran’s political economic vulnerabilities

Iran’s economic characteristics have triggered political economic vulnerabilities:

  1. Oil export dependency: Iran’s economy is highly dependent on oil and natural gas exports. Oil and natural gas exports respectively constituted 40% and 13% of Iran’s total exports prior to the multilateral sanctions on Iran’s oil and natural gas exports in 2010 (Bayat 2012, 936).
  2. Petrochemical product import dependency: Despite having vast oil and natural gas resources, Iran is extremely dependent on refined petroleum product imports. Iran’s high dependency on refined petroleum imports is due to  (a) poor technology in petrochemical industry and oil refinery; and (b) high domestic consumption (Bayat 2012, 938-9).
  3. Foreign investment dependency: Iran is dependent on foreign investment in its energy sector. Energy sector development requires immense financial resources and the purchase of foreign technological advances; the country suffers from a shortage in both.

In sum, UN targeted sanctions against Iran were combined with both additional UN sanctions and state sanctions (unilateral/multilateral) and targeted the sectors which are vital for the country’s economic wellbeing.

EU targeted sanctions against Iran

The EU has authorized different sanctions against Iran. EU sanctions against Iran can be classified in three types:

Restrictive measures within the UN framework (Nuclear related);

After the UN sanctions against Iran were authorized in 2006 (UNSCR 1737 (2006)), the EU brought UNSC binding resolutions into EU law and authorized nuclear related sanctions (restrictive measures) against Iran in 2007 (Council Common Position 2007/140/CFSP 27 February 2007).

Additional restrictive measures based on a broad interpretation of UN resolutions (Nuclear related);

In 2012, the EU authorized unprecedented additional restrictive measures targeting Iran’s energy sector and the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) (Council Decision 2012/635/CFSP 15 October 2012). The EU’s restrictive measures against Iran were broadened through a set of decisions and amendments made by the Council of the European Union during 2012. The expanded EU sanctions against Iran in 2012 compromised the most comprehensive sanctions that the EU had ever imposed on any country (Esfandiary 2013, 9). The unprecedented EU restrictive measures against Iran were far beyond the UNSC resolutions requirements (Kordzadeh Kermani 2014, 104).  However, it should not be overlooked that the ambiguity of the UNSC resolutions in the first place has contributed to the extensive interpretation of UNSC resolutions by the EU. The UNSCRs call upon all Member States to “exercise vigilance” in different activities with Iran whereas “it is not clear what would constitute vigilance” (Gordon 2013, 995-996). Joy Gordon, professor of social ethics at Loyola University Chicago, asserts “It is hard to imagine a term that is more vague and less informative than ‘exercise vigilance’ ”. She claims that the “vigilance language” of the UNSC has been deliberately adopted in order to provide a “mutual deniability” for the authorizer and implementers of sanctions on Iran. On one hand, the UN would be able to always claim that it has authorized targeted humane sanctions against Iran (since it has not directly sanctioned key sectors), and on the other hand the U.S and the EU would be able to broadly expand the implementation by directly sanctioning Iran’s infrastructure (energy sector, banking, financial transactions, and shipping) by claiming that they were only vigilant(Gordon March 27, 2013).

Unilateral restrictive measures (Human rights related);

In 2011, the EU authorized unilateral targeted restrictive measures against Iranians due to the allegation of human rights violations.

The Implementation of UN and EU targeted sanctions against Iran

UN and EU targeted sanctions were implemented similar to comprehensive sanctions due to the following reasons:

1) Energy sector

  • Oil Imports

The UN imposed sanctions did not directly target Iran’s energy sector. At the same time, the language of the preamble to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929 paved the way for different Member States to target it. The preamble states: “note[s] the potential connection between Iran’s revenues derived from its energy sector and the funding of Iran’s proliferation sensitive nuclear activities”. In 2012, the EU banned its member states from purchasing Iran’s crude oil and petrochemical products (Council Decision 2012/35/CFSP). In the same year, the EU expanded its sanctions and prohibited the importation of Iran’s Natural Gas (Council Decision 2012/635/CFSP, 15 October 2012).

Sanctions on Iran’s oil imports have had a remarkable impact on Iran’s oil production and oil revenue. The combination of the sanctions imposed by the UN, EU, and US resulted in the reduction of Iran’s oil sales by 60%. In 2011, Iran’s oil sales were 2.5 mbd with revenue of $100 billion, while in 2013; the sales were reduced to 1 mbd with a revenue of $ 35 billion (Ibid, 52-53). As Iran was not able to sell the oil, its oil production ended up being reduced from about 4.0 mbd in 2011 to roughly 2.6-2.8 in 2013 (Ibid, 52-53).

  • Investment on development of petroleum resources

Iran’s oil fields are old and in dire need of outside technology and investments. In 2011, Iran lost nearly $60 billion in investments as the result of the withdrawal of foreign companies (Katzman May 7, 2014, 54).

2) Shipping and Insurance sectors

The UNSCR’s called upon all Member States to exercise vigilance over activities of the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) and Iran Air Cargo. The UNSCR 1929 decided that the IRISL assets should be frozen (UNSCR 1803 (2008); Resolution 1929 (2010)). According to the UNSCR, Member States had the authorization to inspect IRISL and Iran Air cargos- provided there were “reasonable grounds” to believe they were carrying sanctioned goods (UNSCR 1929 (2010)). Additionally, Member States were required to exercise vigilance over supporting Iran’s trade financially by providing insurance or reinsurance as well as export credits. To wit, it could apply “if they have information that provides reasonable grounds to believe that such services … could contribute to Iran’s proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities” (UNSCR 1929 (2010), para.21).

The implementation of sanctions on Iran’s shipping and insurance sectors went well beyond the UNSC framework. EU targeted IRISL itself and froze IRISL and its affiliates’ assets. The EU members were required to inspect all cargo when their destination or departure was Iran. In addition, Iranian cargo flights were to be  prohibited from landing in EU airports (Council Decision July 2010/413/CFSP, 26 July 2010). The EU sanctions prohibited its members from providing insurance from every step of purchasing, importing and transporting Iran’s crude oil or petroleum products. In general, EU members were banned from providing insurance or reinsurance to all Iranian shipping companies. In sum, the implementation of targeted sanctions on Iran’s shipping and insurance sectors were comprehensive on the ground. According to a report by the Panel of Experts’ (POE), a UN expert body, many transport companies preferred to stop (instead of exercising vigilance) doing business with Iran to avoid the risk of violating the UNSC resolutions (POE report June 2012 (S/2012/395), para.162.). As a general rule, insurance and reinsurance are a necessary requirement for international trade. Accordingly, the implementation of targeted sanctions both on shipping and insurance made a strong contribution to curbing Iran’s trading system regardless of what kind of good was being traded.

3) Banking and Financial sectors

In 2007, the UNSC imposed targeted sanctions on two Iranian banks: Bank Sepah and Bank Sepah International (UNSCR 1747 (2007)). Furthermore, the UNSC called upon all Member States to exercise vigilance over their activities with all Iranian banks, especially Bank Meili, Saderat and the Central Bank of Iran (UNSCR 1803 (2008) and 1929 (2010). The UNSCR 1929 (2010) also required Member States to exercise vigilance in doing any financial interaction with Iran, including financing and offering trade credits [2]. In addition, the EU gradually expanded sanctioning banking and financial relationships with Iran beginning in 2007. Ultimately, in 2012, the EU sanctions encompassed all transactions with all Iranian banks with an exception on authorized transactions under strict conditions (Council Decision 2012/635/CFSP, 15 October 2012). In 2012, the EU designated 14 Iranian banks to be cut off from access to the electronic payments system of SWIFT (Society of Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications)[3]. SWIFT is the largest financial messaging service in the world. In  2011, financial institutions in Iran had more than 2 million financial messages being processed by SWIFT (Ebner 2013, 131). Cutting Iran off from SWIFT sharply affected Iran’s financial transactions in every area (Jorjani and others 2014, 1333). In sum, the targeted sanctions against Iran’s banking system and financial sector were implemented in a comprehensive manner. Consequently, Iran was completely cut off from the international payment system.

4) International Lending

The UNSC called upon all Member States and International institutions not to provide loans to Iran unless for humanitarian and development reasons (UNSCR 1747 (2007)). The EU set a similar prohibition for its members in 2010 (Council Decision July27, 2010). Accordingly, the members were not only banned from granting loans, grants or aid to Iran, but also they were prohibited from voting for Iran to receive International lending from institutions like the IMF and the World Bank (Gordon 2013, 991-995). The multilayered implementation of restrictive measures against international lending to Iran made it extremely difficult for Iran to provide International loans and aids for its infrastructural projects. These included environmental projects, especially since 2010.

5) Dual use items

The UNSCRs banned the sales of almost all dual use items to Iran (UNSCRs 1737 (2006) and 1747 (2007)). In line with the UNSCRs, the EU imposed sanctions on the export of dual use items to Iran (European Commission Website: Dual-use export controls). While dual use items exports to Iran were subjected to sanctions due to their military applications, they clearly affected civil applications as well. In particular, sanctions on dual use items impacted Iran’s automotive industry, which is in need of dual use materials. The auto sector is a significant source of Iran’s revenue. According to the Ministry of Industries and Mines of Iran, automotive manufacturing industry data illustrates 66.2% of a reduction in various types of cars in Sep. 2012 and a 42% reduction in the first six months of 2012 compared to the same period the previous year (Alef News Website October 10, 2012).


In spite of the claim that targeted sanctions do not have the inhumane impacts of comprehensive sanctions, the impacts of UN and EU targeted sanctions against Iran went far beyond the sanctioned target and had population-wide impacts. They



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[1]  ILSA (Iran and Libya Sanction Act), the formal name of the D’Amato (Senator Alfonse D’Amato, who was highly influenced by AIPAC and introduced this sanction). According to ILSA, Iran should stop its program on WMD and supporting (Patrick Clawson in Hass 1998, 85-99).

[2]  Kenneth Katzman, a senior analyst of Iran at the Congressional Research Service, describes the term “vigilance in the UNSCRs as  “a nonbinding call to cut off” or “ voluntary restraint” (Katzman, March 5, 2014, 32).

[3] The EU requested the Brussels-based SWIFT to ban Iranian banks from the SWIFT system. On March 17, 2012 blacklisted Iranian banks were cut off from the SWIFT system (Katzman May 7, 2014, 36).

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