Summary of Sanctions on Iran, Russia, and North Korea

The US has been using sanctions as an instrument of power since approximately 1892. Foreign Policy as an informative and concise history of US sanctions here. Sanctions are defined as (in law and legal definition) penalties or other means of enforcement used to provide incentives for obedience with the law, or with rules and regulations. Sanctions against countries or foreign nationals are used (to entice or threaten) as a means to exert US foreign policy and to allow US to pursue its national interests.

Most recently Congress enacted H.R. 3364, “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act,” (SA) and Trump signed it into law (P.L. 115-44) on August 2, 2017. Like most sanctions of the past decade or so, it specifically targets certain countries and entities within those countries, or individuals associated with them. Trump stated that some provisions of the SA could affect his authority as it relates to foreign nationals gaining entry into the US, or his ability to conduct foreign policy (like he knows how to conduct foreign policy), and he also claims that the congressional review procedure for the Russian sanctions doesn’t meet the Constitutional requirements for each federal branch’s participation in enacting and executing legislation…I am going to ignore all this because Trump is full of shit.

SA is targeted at Iran, Russia, and North Korea. SA requires the US government to do certain actions against these countries,entities, or individuals associated with these countries. Obviously, a US law cannot require another country or foreign national to do anything, so the SA is actually instructions for federal departments, agencies, and offices that have the responsibilities associated with the countries and entities identified in the Act.

Quick summary of the SA:

  • sanctions against Iran related to to its missile program;
  • sanctions against Iran’s support of terrorism;
  • sanctions against Iran buying weapons;
  • sanctions against Iran for human rights abuses;
  • sanctions against Russia for its activities in Syria and Ukraine;
  • sanctions against Russia for its cyber-related activities against US and other countries;
  • sanctions against Russia associated with energy resource exploration and exploitation;
  • sanctions against Russia for human rights abuses in Syria and Ukraine;
  • requires Trump to explain to Congress why he would waive or terminate a sanction;
  • authorizes Congress to override Trump’s waiving or terminating a sanction;
  • requires Secretary of State to determine if North Korea is a state sponsor of terrorism;
  • penalize those that buy or sell to North Korea, including precious or rare earth metals;
  • identify sea and air ports that don’t inspect or interdict North Korean vessels;
  • restricts North Korea or its agents from engaging in international financial systems; and
  • authorizes sanctions against entities that violate the UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea.

More details of SA:


  • penalize individuals or countries that assist Iran’s missile program;
  • penalize the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and associated individuals, for supporting international terrorism;
  • authorize the penalizing of Iranians, or agents of the Iranian government, who abuse human rights of others through such activities as extrajudicial killings and torture;
  • require sanctions on entities that sell weapons to Iran; and
  • requires review and assessment of identified entities that may be contributing to Iran’s missile program or its support of international terrorism.


  • strengthens current executive orders related to Ukraine and cyber-related sanctions on Russia;
    • makes permanent Ukraine-related sanctions that address Russian involvement in the breakaway region in Ukraine;
    • strengthens sanctions on persons (under US jurisdiction) from providing goods, services, and technology related to the exploration or production for deepwater, Arctic offshore, and shale oil projects undertaken by Russian companies;
    • restricts lending to identified financial institutions and energy companies associated with Russian activities in energy projects;
    • enlarges area of Russian cyber-related activities that undermine the cybersecurity of any US or foreign person;
  • requires Trump to sanction in areas related to Russia that is currently at his discretion such as:
    • foreign persons who invest significantly in special Russian oil projects, and financial institutions that fund these projects;
    • foreign banks that conduct transactions related to “defense” items that end up in Syria, Ukraine, Georgia, or Moldova…or any country Trump designates;
    • specifically identifies Russian government officials, associates, family members, and others that ‘commit or facilitate’ acts of corruptions;
  • requires sanctions against foreign nationals and family who support “serious” human rights abuses  in territory that Russia occupies or provide support to Assad regime in Syria;
  • restricts US or foreign persons from engaging in significant financial transactions with individuals associated with Russia’s defense or intelligence services;
  • authorizes, but not required, sanctions on US or foreign individuals who trade or invest a “significant” amount that enhances Russian construction of energy export pipelines; and
  • adds specific conditions that Trump must certify to have been met if he were to take steps to waive or terminate a sanction or restriction, and allow Congress to decide whether or not to block Trump’s waiver or termination of a sanction. Congress does not have to approve the waivers though.

North Korea

  • requires Secretary of State to determine within 90 days if NK should be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism;
  • expands categories of activities of entities Trump must designate as subject to sanctions, including those who purchase precious metals and rare earth metals from NK, provide NK with fuel or related products, or interact with NK commerce;
  • names specific entities subject to sanctions and denies them access to US banking system or financial systems outside of NK;
  • requires Trump to identify seaports and airports that fail to adequately inspect or interdict NK vessels, identifies suspect ports in China, Russia, Iran, and Syria that Congress has identified, and blocks import to US of goods made by NK slave labor;
  • authorizes Trump to impose sanctions on any entity that violates the UN Security Council sanctions.

Sanctions used to be a very blunt tool used by the US, but more recently sanctions have become refined and specifically targeted. There are no guarantees that sanctions will affect the actions of Iran, Russia, or North Korea. Some have argued that economic sanctions have little effect unless coupled with other diplomatic tools. Of course, others have argued that they can be effective. In the end, however, there are some final questions:

  • Are these new sanctions meant to actually punish Iran, Russia, and North Korea?
  • Are these sanctions actually just a hard to achieve checklist for Iran, Russia, and North Korea thus legitimizing future US military operations against them?
  • Are sanctions an effective tool in foreign policy?
  • Is this new round of sanctions actually meant as a way to allow Congress to steer US foreign policy?

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