The new sanctions do not take direct aim at the Iran nuclear agreement negotiated by Trump’s predecessor, although CBS News reports that the announcement comes shortly after President Trump used a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to declare that “no one has been able to figure out” why the Obama administration signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in its given form.
Trump has long expressed hostility toward that agreement, but since taking office he has stepped back from former promises to nullify or renegotiate it, in favor of a broader emphasis on confronting Iran over its regional activities and military buildup. The ballistic missile issue was an early contributor to tensions between the new administration and the Islamic Republic, after the latter conducted a test of one such nuclear-capable weapon only nine days after President Trump was sworn into office.
The incident apparently led directly to the administration putting Iran “on notice” over its activities, thereby setting the stage for the types of assertive policies that continue with the announcement of new sanctions. CBS notes that this is the second such imposition by the current administration, although the previous set of non-nuclear sanctions had actually been made ready by the Obama White House before actually being put into effect by Trump.
However, there were also congressional efforts to impose new sanctions under the previous administration, which Obama’s team worked against, even going so far as to oppose the reauthorization of the Iran Sanctions Act, although this measure did ultimately go through. The new environment created by the Trump administration seems to be freeing up Congress to take more of its own assertive actions against the Islamic Republic. This was evidenced by bills that were approved both by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Friday, the former taking aim at the Iranian ballistic missile program and the latter seeking to extend sanctions on terrorist sponsorship to include the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Last month, President Trump initiated a review process in the State Department which could lead to the IRGC being designated as a foreign terrorist organization. This could be expected to have an even broader impact than the Senate’s proposed sanctions, in that it would mandate punitive actions against any entity that does business both with the IRGC and the US.
In reporting upon the Senate bill, the Washington Post pointed out that its cosponsor included several Democrats who had supported the nuclear agreement, which achieved congressional authorization by the narrowest of margins in late 2015. A number of Democrats were skeptical about the value of the agreement and about its long-term prospects for success, but their dissent was apparently kept in check by the former president’s leadership of the party.
With the executive branch and both chambers of Congress firmly in the hands of the Republican Party, there is less for Democrats to lose by breaking ranks on this issue. But this is not to say that the Democratic supporters of the sanctions bills have necessarily abandoned their former support for the JCPOA. Even though Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has warned that any new sanctions at all would be regarded as a violation of the spirit of the agreement and thus grounds for its cancellation, Al Monitor suggested on Thursday that Democratic support for the sanctions bills had been secured by attempting to minimize this risk.
The report indicates that the committees removed provisions that might have been regarded as excessively punitive or burdensome, including some that did connect the terrorism issue to the sanctions relief that was granted under the nuclear deal. These changes were supposedly secured primarily by the Senate committee’s ranking Democrat Ben Cardin, who also emphasized:
“The important part is that there is nothing in this bill … that could cause a violation of the [nuclear deal]. It is strong in dealing with Iran’s other non-nuclear activities, such as dealing with the ballistic missile violations, their arms issues, human rights and dealing with terrorism. So the four areas that were not in the nuclear agreement we strengthened, but did it in a way that is directed toward those activities and has nothing to do with the nuclear issue.”
However, despite this and despite the fact that President Trump reportedly assured his European partners that he was committed to abiding by the JCPOA, there is still some possibility that his administration could find ways of undermining it. This was the focus, for instance, of an ABC News article detailing the International Atomic Energy Agency’s announcement that it would need more money from the nuclear deal’s signatories, including the US, in order to continue enforcing the deal’s provisions.
ABC points out that the US pays for about a quarter of the IAEA’s annual budget, and that this in turn pays for about half the cost of JCPOA enforcement. But the article also notes that these existing funds may evaporate under Trump’s leadership, as he has suggested cutting US support for international agencies like the IAEA, in order to offset increases in things like military spending. US support for this plan is tenuous, but if it goes through it may undermine the JCPOA in absence of a direct American attack upon it.