The US ‘Snapback Sanctions’ on Iran Tantamount to Crimes Against Humanity

by | Oct 22, 2020

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About Saeed Bagheri

Dr. Saeed Bagheri is a Lecturer in International Law at the University of Reading, School of Law. He can be reached via Twitter as @SBagheriLAW.


Saeed Bagheri, “The US ‘Snapback Sanctions’ on Iran Tantamount to Crimes Against Humanity”, (OxHRH Blog, October 2020) <> [Date of Access].

In 2015, Iran agreed a long-term Nuclear Deal on its nuclear programme with the world powers known as the P5+1 – the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany. The deal formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) endorsed by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2231, laid the groundwork for the Council to lift all sanctions imposed by the UNSC sine 2006 if Iran meet the requirements. The central demand in the UNSC resolutions was that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment program. From January 16, 2016 the UNSC has lifted the sanctions when Iran completed key steps under the JCPOA that restricted its sensitive nuclear activities and allowed in international inspectors.

Notwithstanding this, the US imposed new sanctions on Iran after the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA on May 8, 2018. Further, the US has announced very recently that the UN sanctions are being re-imposed on Iran pursuant to the ‘snapback process’ under the JCPOA. According to the ‘snapback process’, “if the UNSC does not adopt a resolution within 30 days of receiving a notification by a JCPOA participant State of an issue that the JCPOA participant State believes constitutes significant non-performance of commitments under the JCPOA, all of the provisions of [the above-mentioned six resolutions] shall apply in the same manner as they applied before the adoption of [Resolution 2231]” (Para. 11 and 12 of Resolution 2231 and Article 36 and 37 of the JCPOA).

Having rejected the illegal snapback sanctions reimposed by the US, the UNSC and the other parties to the JCPOA have already emphasized that the US is not a party to the JCPOA and, thus, it is not a position to implement snapback mechanism.

The economic sanctions imposed by the US ended in failure, considering that they were unable to attain their proclaimed goals. Sanctions intrinsically aim to change the target States’ political behaviour through punishing them because of their breach of certain rules and/or to prevent the target from infringing legal and political rules which the imposer deems important (M. Miyagawa, The Aims of Economic Sanctions, 1992, 89). The US sanctions have not been successful in changing the Iranian regime’s political behaviour, particular in the Middle East, and therefore the sanctions have moved beyond their main objective, and have targeted the lives of civilians who did no wrong.

The US maximum pressure and stepping up sanctions on Iran, particularly in the age of COVID-19, have been considered as a moral abomination and wantonly cruel act of collective punishment, while its people die because of a virus that threatens all humanity. The nature of the sanctions explicitly demonstrate how they can be categorized as ‘inhumane acts’ and could therefore be classified as ‘crimes against humanity’ codified by the 1998 Rome Statute. According to Article 7 of the Rome Statute, ‘crimes against humanity’ encompasses crimes such as murder, extermination, rape, persecution and all other inhumane acts of a similar character (wilfully causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health), committed ‘as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack’.

Giving the nature of the US sanctions, it is enough to consider an act as ‘crime against humanity’ if the perpetrator has inflicted great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health intentionally, and the perpetrator been aware (mens rea) of the nature and gravity of the act as factual circumstances that established the character similar to any other act referred to in Article 7.

It has been reported and documented by Human Rights Watch that the US unilateral sanctions have drastically constrained the ability of the Iranian government to finance humanitarian imports, including medicines, causing serious hardships for ordinary Iranians and threatening their right to health. This is a shorthand way of considering the US unilateral sanctions on Iran as ‘crimes against humanity’ under Article 7 of the Rome Statute, where the widespread impacts of the sanctions have systematically targeted civilian lives. That is to say, mens rea is most clearly present while the US is wilfully blind to facts and circumstances which would bring its acts within crimes against humanity by reimposing murderous sanctions despite the ongoing global public health crisis and internationally reported impacts of the detrimental sanctions on civilians (see Prosecutor v. Duško Tadić (Judgment), IT-94-1-T, para. 657).

That much is obvious that the recently reimposed snapback sanctions are going to impair the Iranians’ right to health more than ever, while the Trump administration avoids monitoring the detrimental impacts of the reimposed sanctions on civilian lives.

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