Insider news & Analysis in Iran

By INU Staff 

INU - On Thursday, the US Senate voted to extend for 10 years the Iran Sanctions Act, which would have otherwise expired at the end of the year. The upper chamber of Congress followed the lead of the House of Representatives, which had previously approved the measure with 419 votes in favor and only one against. The Senate vote was a similarly overwhelming 99 to zero. 

CNN quoted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as saying, “Preserving these sanctions is critical given Iran's disturbing pattern of aggression and its persistent efforts to expand its sphere of influence across the Middle East.”

Such commentary is typical of the skeptical approach that the Republican Party has taken to President Obama’s relatively conciliatory approach to Iran policy. The Republican congressional majority was unified in objecting to the Iran nuclear agreement, which led to the suspension of economic sanctions and which was approved by the narrowest of margins in Congress, with Democrats relying on filibuster rules. 

However, the vote tallies on the ISA reauthorization clearly indicate that even supporters of the Obama administration’s nuclear agreement and overall foreign policy are in favor of keeping congressional pressure on the Islamic Republic. CNN also quoted Senator Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, as saying that the reauthorization was important to maintaining a credible threat of the “snap-back” of those sanctions in the event that Iran is found to be cheating on the deal. 

President Obama has disputed this, insisting that the ISA reauthorization was unnecessary, as the executive branch would have sufficient authority to re-impose those measures unilaterally. It is not known, however, whether the disagreement between the president and Congress will lead to a presidential veto. 

The nearly ubiquitous congressional support for the bill will make it easy for the legislature to override the veto. However, the Washington Post notes that it could be possible for the president to issue a pocket veto, if legislators leave the Capitol for recess before the 10-day window for the president’s signature expires. This is an unlikely scenario, but a last-resort option for the Obama administration if it is sufficiently committed to obstructing the ISA. 

Regardless of the accuracy of President Obama’s account of executive authority over the sanctions, it is difficult to imagine how the expiration of the ISA would benefit American enforcement measures. Presumably the only reason for Obama to oppose the reauthorization and possibly veto the highly popular bill is out of fear that the Iranians will be sufficiently offended by its passage that they will take retaliatory action and threaten the very life of the nuclear agreement. 

Indeed, Iranian officials including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have repeatedly threatened such action, after making it clear that they would regard sanctions reauthorization as a violation of the spirit of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But on Thursday, the Weekly Standard pointed out that lawmakers from both parties had categorically rejected this rhetoric. It quoted Cardin as saying of the alleged American violations, “Iran is making this up. These problems don't exist.” 

Cardin added that the reauthorization of sanctions did not constitute new actions against Iran. The JCPOA prevents Western powers from imposing new sanctions on the Iranian nuclear program, but the sanctions described by the ISA are not new and would, in any event, remain suspended according to executive authority. Furthermore, the JCPOA does not suspend sanctions related to non-nuclear issues such as Iran’s human rights violations and support for international terrorism. Neither does it prevent the US from impose new sanctions in response to credible reports of violations in these areas. 

Indeed, the Obama administration acknowledged this fact when it imposed new sanctions on companies and individuals connected to the Iranian ballistic missile program, soon after the JCPOA was implemented in January. That initiative was taken in response to the test-firing of ballistic missiles by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, in apparent violation of United Nations resolutions barring Iran from work on weapons capable of carrying nuclear warheads. 

These and other provocative moves by the IRGC and the Iranian regime help to underscore McConnell’s comments about the need for a congressional response to ongoing Iranian misbehavior. For the majority leader and other critics of Obama’s foreign policy, the reauthorization of the ISA is one way of showing the Iranians that the US is serious about the enforcement of existing provisions, and that there will be consequences for violations by the Iranian regime. 

This message is sure to seem even more essential to those critics as more information continues to emerge about Iran’s provocative gestures toward the West and its efforts to exploit the post-nuclear political climate in order to expand its influence throughout the broader Middle East. One example of this information came from Agence-France Presse on Thursday, when it reported that expert analysis had been carried out on weapons that were previously seized by Australian and French ships. 

Many of the more than 2,000 weapons displayed hallmarks of Iranian design, and the shipments appeared to be en route to Somalia, from which they would likely have been transported to Yemen, when Iran is backing the Houthi rebellion against President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi. The analysis also identified weapons that had apparently been obtained from North Korea and from Russia, potentially tying those Iranian allies to what the AFP described as an arms “pipeline” into Yemen. 

What’s more, American lawmakers may find that there is even greater need for deterrence of these sorts of activities now, as President-elect Trump prepares to take office in January and implement a considerably more hardline policy toward Iran. The Algemeiner reported on Thursday that the Iranians may be ramping up their arms smuggling activities in an effort to arm their foreign terrorist proxies before the US presidential transition is completed.  

The same report highlights the fact that many critics of the Islamic Republic consider its imperial expansion in the Middle East to be of primary foreign policy concern. This concern may be a guiding principle for some of those US lawmakers who have prioritized the reauthorization of the ISA, regardless of President Obama’s wishes. But the nearly universal support for the bill also includes lawmakers who support the Iran nuclear deal in its current form and have generally accepted Iranian compliance with it. Their votes of support suggest that even full compliance would not be considered sufficient cause to relinquish any of the US’s current leverage over Tehran.

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