Iran Sanctions Bill Is on the Way to Passage: What’s Next?

Some Democrats the accused the Republican Party of stalling the bill as a result of objections from President Donald Trump regarding the Russia-related provisions and specifically the effort to constrain presidential authority to change enforcement mechanisms and suspend or eliminate the newly imposed sanctions at a later date. However, the Republican leadership of the House proceeded to introduce a virtually identical bill, which passed easily and is now expected to go to the Senate before the mid-August start of Congress’ summer break.

Despite lingering presidential objections to certain aspects of the bill, it seems to be generally expected that Trump will sign it into law, since the extent of its bipartisan congressional support makes it veto-proof. In any event, there are no apparent points of disagreement between Congress and the White House over the Iran or North Korea-related provisions. And indeed, the new Iran sanctions are very much in keeping with the president’s pursuit of more assertive policies toward the Islamic Republic, which has been ongoing since he took office in January.

That effort has not been without its obstacles, though. Last week, Trump’s foreign policy advisors reportedly convinced him to certify Iranian compliance with the nuclear agreement negotiated by his predecessor. It was the second time that Trump provided such certification, which is due every 90 days, and he apparently did so begrudgingly in both instances.

Immediately after moving to keep the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in force at the beginning of last week, the administration imposed new executive sanctions on 18 individuals and groups with ties to the Iranian ballistic missile program, its Revolutionary Guards-operated fast-attack boats, and reported instances of the theft of American software. Furthermore, the White House indicated that it would be undertaking a thorough review of overall US policy toward Iran. This is certain to keep interested parties watching closely in order to understand the emerging strategies and the ultimate goal that the Trump team has in mind.

While campaigning for office, Trump promised to tear up the nuclear agreement, which he described as “the worst deal ever negotiated.” But since taking office his administration has seemingly maintained a broader focus, as by putting Tehran “on notice” over its contributions to regional instability and urging the international community to make priorities of that and the Iranian ballistic missile program. The recent reporting on JCPOA certification suggests that the president is still anxious to follow through on his campaign promise, but not everyone who is critical of the previous administration’s handling of Iran policy believes this is the right approach.

Politico published an editorial along these lines on Tuesday, which argued that the nuclear agreement had done too little to constrain the Iranian nuclear program but should be kept in force over the long term while the Trump administration pursues the broader aim of “restoring leverage against Tehran” and thereby creating the conditions that could lead to a more comprehensive fix.

In the view of the authors, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman and General (ret.) Charles Wald, cancelling the JCPOA would undermine this goal by putting the US at odds with some of its allies and diminishing the long-term chances of rebuilding a multinational sanctions regime like the one that was credited with bringing the Iranians to the table. The article goes on to make several concrete suggestions for what could be done instead to build up pressure on the Iranian government and its paramilitary force. Some of these recommendations clearly reflect the content of the new sanctions package.

In fact, sanctions themselves are well understood to have the effect of making potential Western investors more wary of providing financing and encouraging international engagement. Despite a handful of post-JCPOA deals, most would-be business partners have kept Iran at arm’s length because of the ongoing threat of sanctions enforcement and the Iranian regime’s failure to bring itself into line with international standards of transparency. The sanctions that result from the pending US legislation will almost certainly amplify this effect, and it is also possible that Tehran’s response will establish justification for further actions along the lines of what Edelman and Wald recommend.

While not calling for direct military intervention in the region, the authors do highlight the need for a credible threat of force, as in the threat of airstrikes against nuclear infrastructure in the event that Iran is found to be in violation of its obligations. In a recent interview with Tablet Magazine, former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton pointedly said that Iran is already “not in compliance,” even though international authorities and even the Trump administration have stopped short of acknowledging outright violations of the JCPOA.

Bolton did not, however, use that interview to actually call for airstrikes, and it is not clear that Edelman and Wald actually advocate such a course of action at this point, either. However, all three men agree upon the need for forms of pressure on the Islamic Republic which stretch beyond economic sanctions. In theory, the pending sanctions bill lays the groundwork for this, in that it identifies the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist Organization. This is in line with recommendations that Trump himself made soon after taking office, as well as recommendations that have been made over a period of years by opponents of the Iranian regime such as the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

The NCRI held its annual Free Iran rally in Paris on July 1, with the attendance of approximately 100,000 Iranian expatriates plus hundreds of political dignitaries and scholars from throughout the world. There, NCRI President Maryam Rajavi urged not only terrorist designation for the IRGC but also an internationally coordinated effort to push the IRGC out of regional conflict zones and to diminish its overall influence in the Middle East.

While the former recommendation is certainly being addressed by Congress through the sanctions bill, it actually appears that the White House may be moving away from the latter recommendation, as evidenced by last week’s announcement that the US would be ending its financial support for moderate rebel groups fighting against the Iran-backed dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

According to Reuters, the Assad government has responded by publicly boasting that this represented the beginning of the end of the more than six-year civil war, in the early days of which Assad had reportedly been on the verge of overthrow before the intervention of Iran. In his Tablet interview, Ambassador Bolton was asked whether these new developments represented the Trump administration “ceding Syria to Iran.” He responded by saying that the administration’s strategy was not yet clear, but that a poorly formulated policy could fail to prevent the formation of an Iranian-led Shiite crescent spanning Iraq and Syria, with alienated Sunni populations looking to their own militant groups in order to defend their interests.

A response to this threat may or may not be clarified once the White House completes its policy review and makes it clear once and for all whether the president intends to sign the new sanctions bill into law and fully support it. In the meantime, figures like Bolton may still be in a position to influence the development of a comprehensive anti-Iran strategy. Bolton himself is close to the administration, was reportedly considered for Secretary of State, and has already been credited with helping Trump to decide upon the need for a policy review following the latest certification of the JCPOA.

Similarly significant is the fact that Bolton is a longstanding support of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, and a regular attendee of the summer rallies, which take place annually. The latest such rally conveyed clear recommendations for what can be done following the imposition of comprehensive, terrorism-related sanctions on the IRGC. Not only that, but the NCRI’s overall platform puts US strategy into the context of a defined goal that has recently been hinted at by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other Trump administration officials, namely the promotion of domestic Iranian forces that would exploit the weakness of sanctions-damaged institutions in order to facilitate a peaceful transition to democratic governance.