University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

George A. Lopez and David Cortright

In light of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration and his declared intention to enhance transparency and improve relations with the international community, a new and significant opportunity exists to end the nuclear standoff with Iran.

The core objectives of the international community are to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and to guarantee that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes. This can be accomplished by convincing Tehran to accept binding limits on its nuclear program and robust monitoring mechanisms to guarantee the absence of military-related activities.

Iran may be willing to accept greater transparency and limits on its nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions. The United States could help to make this possible by offering an initial suspension of sanctions on non-military goods and services. The U.S. could urge the European Union to adopt a parallel suspension.


An initial suspension of sanctions would not be an unprecedented or radical step. The U.S. recently removed restrictions on humanitarian activities and athletic exchanges with Iran, following earlier action in July to ease Iranian access to medical supplies. The U.S. could follow up these humanitarian gestures with a diplomatic move to suspend some additional non-military sanctions. These measures would have a beneficial effect on the Iranian people and would provide encouragement for President Rouhani’s declared intention to build constructive relations with the international community.

The suspension could be offered for a period of 6 months, renewable when Iran responds positively. It could be combined with an indication that other sanctions will be lifted on a step-by-step basis if the Iranian side reciprocates.


The advantage of sanctions suspension is that it allows for quickly re-activating sanctions if Iran does not respond in kind or attempts to exploit the gesture. If successful, the initial partial suspension could serve as the basis for ongoing negotiations to reach a comprehensive settlement.

If Iran agrees to enhanced transparency and monitoring, sanctions relief could continue on a systematic and scheduled basis. Each significant Iranian step toward limitation of its nuclear program and greater international monitoring would be matched by a further lifting of specific sets of U.S. and EU sanctions. UN Security Council sanctions also could be suspended as the process moves forward. Sanctions on arms transfers and nuclear-related and dual use technologies would be left to the last phase of the process and would be lifted only when nuclear controls and transparency agreements are fully operational.


The record of past cases shows that an offer to lift sanctions can be an effective inducement that encourages targeted states to take steps toward compliance with international norms.

Libya. In August 1998 the UN Security Council offered to suspend sanctions against Libya if it accepted an agreement to turn over for trial two suspects wanted in connection with the terrorist bombing of U.S. and French airliners. When the proposed agreement was announced, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1192, which affirmed that the Council would suspend sanctions when the suspects arrived in The Hague. A few months later the Libyan suspects were delivered to The Hague, and UN sanctions were immediately suspended.

Liberia. In June 2006 the Security Council voted to lift timber sanctions against Liberia as a means of encouraging the government to adopt a new forestry law providing more transparent management of forestry resources. In adopting Resolution 1689 the Council decided not to renew the previous timber sanctions but also declared that it would reinstate the sanctions after a period of 90 days if the forestry legislation was not adopted. The new law was adopted and the sanctions were not renewed.

Burma/Myanmar. In May 2012 the U.S. government and the Council of the European Union agreed to suspend sanctions on trade and investment in the country’s economy. The EU decision provided for the continuation of the arms embargo against Burma/Myanmar for another 12 months. The sanctions suspension was intended to encourage and reward the government’s decisions to end military rule, accept open elections and adopt other measures toward greater political freedom.

A similar policy now of providing sanctions relief to Iran could yield significant dividends in enhancing Iran’s sense of security, which is key to denuclearization and tension reduction in the region.

George A. Lopez is the Hesburgh Chair of Peace Studies and David Cortright is the director of policy studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.