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Fact check: Is Joe Biden weakening Iran sanctions?

May 3, 2024

The US and EU responded to recent Iranian drone attacks on Israel by increasing sanctions. US President Joe Biden has been accused of laxity in their application. Is there any truth to the accusations?

US President Joe Biden stands behind microphones and gestures with his hands while delivering remarks at the White House
President Biden warned Iran against further escalation while promising Israel support after recent drone attacksImage: Chris Kleponis/ZUMA Wire/Imago Images

Iran, home to the world's largest oil and gas reserves, has been repeatedly subjected to sanctions since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In 2012, for instance, the US and EU embargoed Iranian oil exports over the country's controversial nuclear program.

In response to a massive April 14 Iranian drone attack on Israel, the US and EU again revved up sanctions against Tehran. But how are they being implemented?   

The Biden administration and the UN's Iran arms embargo

Claim: "Reminder: Biden allowed the UN sanctions on Iran's drones and ballistic missiles to expire less than six months ago. The very same drones and missiles en route to Israel right now," television commentator Morgan Ortagus wrote on the social media platform X. Ortagus served as a State Department spokesperson for the Trump administration from 2019 to 2021. 

DW fact check: False.

The UN arms embargo against Iran expired on October 18, 2020 — before Biden was elected president and long before he took office on January 20, 2021.

The embargo ended exactly five years after the adoption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal, an international treaty designed to curb Iran's nuclear program.

As part of the JCPOA, the United Nations Security Council agreed on July 20, 2015, to relax its existing arms embargo by unanimously adopting Resolution 2231.

The change, however, was scheduled to go into effect only after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed Iranian compliance with JCPOA rules regarding its nuclear program to the Security Council.

Under then-President Donald Trump, the US withdrew from the JCPOA on May 8, 2018, only to unilaterally reinstate the sanctions lifted by the JCPOA on August 6, 2018.

In September 2020, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that sanctions relief had been reversed and that measures outlined in UN Security Council Resolution 2231 would also apply to Iran once again.

That was not the case. On August 26, 2020, the Security Council blocked a US initiative to that end on the grounds that the US had unilaterally withdrawn from the international treaty and had therefore forfeited its right to propose changes.

The US has increased sanctions against Tehran several times since 1979. A comprehensive list of all US sanctions against Iran since 2001 has been compiled by the non-partisan United States Institute for Peace. 

A man in a dark blue suit and a tie (IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi) holds up a headset as an AIEA sign can be sen behind him
IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi has repeatedly called on Iran to allow inspectors back into its nuclear facilitiesImage: Roland Schlager/APA/dpa/picture alliance

Sanctions relief on humanitarian grounds?

Claim: "Biden has made direct payments and relaxed sanctions on Tehran since the day he took office. Iran used that money to attack Israel," wrote one enraged X user. US Representative Bryan Steil, a Republican from Wisconsin, agreed, writing: "President Biden just renewed a sanctions waiver to allow Iran access to $10 billion. Meanwhile, Iran is enriching uranium closer to nuclear levels and its proxies are shooting missiles at our servicemembers [sic], killing 3." 

DW fact check: Misleading.

No direct connection between sanctions relief and Iran's recent attack on Israel has been shown to date. Nevertheless, it is true that President Biden has repeatedly ordered the suspension of Iran sanctions. Here are a few examples:

In February 2022, Biden attempted to enable indirect US-Iranian negotiations aimed at reviving the 2015 JCPOA by issuing "sanctions waivers" for Russian, Chinese and European companies.

In July 2023, after a meeting with his Iraqi counterpart, Fuad Hussein, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the US would unblock Iranian assets in Iraq, allowing Baghdad to repay a portion of the billions it owed Tehran for natural gas supplies.

In August 2023, President Biden allowed Tehran access to some $6 billion (€5.58 billion) in oil assets frozen in South Korea in exchange for the release of five US hostages held in Iran.   

This March, the US president allowed Iran access to another $10 billion in frozen assets. White House National Security Communications Advisor John Kirby justified the step in an April 15 press conference as follows: "And as for this — this unfreezing, that — none of that fund — none of those funds — funds set up in an account, by the way, by the previous administration — goes directly to the Supreme Leader of the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps]. It can only be used for humanitarian purposes. And we're watching that account very, very closely to make sure that that's what happens."

Sanctions expert Claude Rakisits of the Brussels-based research hub Centre for Security, Diplomacy and Strategy (CSDS) disagrees with Kirby's assessment, saying: "The money it [Iran] got from the waiver will have facilitated Teheran to buy and produce arms." His claim cannot be proven.

US President Biden, on the other hand, defended his sanctions policy in an April 18 statement, saying: "During my Administration, the United States has sanctioned over 600 individuals and entities — including Iran and its proxies, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and Kataib Hezbollah. And we will keep at it. I've directed my team, including the Department of the Treasury, to continue to impose sanctions that further degrade Iran's military industries."

A man rides a moped along the street as a giant poster featuring an arsenal of upright Iranian ballistic missiles is seen behind him
Iran has remained defiant in the face of decades of Western sanctionsImage: AFP

Iranian economic growth and increased arms exports despite sanctions

Claim: "Sanctions against Iran make no sense if they don't include China," wrote German-Iranian journalist Natalie Amiri on X. Other users have described sanctions as "utterly pointless" because they cannot be enforced.

DW fact check: Correct.

Sanctions create a drag on economic growth, reduce investment and lead to joblessness and poverty. The trajectory of per capita GDP in Iran clearly illustrates the decline the country has suffered as a result of sanctions leveled against it since 1979.

For example, in 2020, per capita GDP fell to $2,700, the same as it was in 2004 (see chart). Still, despite international sanctions, the country's economy has not been entirely destroyed.

"Despite ongoing sanctions and increased geopolitical uncertainty, economic growth has proven resilient over the past several years," a World Bank analysis concluded. 

Sanctions experts such as the CSDS's Claude Rakisits agree: "Western sanctions against Iranian drones and weapons haven't worked because Tehran has gotten weapons or components from other sources," he told DW. Speaking of deliveries mainly from China, North Korea and Russia, Rakisits said, "An effective alliance exists between these dictatorships."

Is Iran developing a nuclear weapon?

This article was translated from German by Jon Shelton