On the side of advocacy, Secretary of State John Kerry once again praised Iran’s implementation measures on Tuesday, saying that “significant progress” had been made toward fulfillment of Iran’s obligations and a clear path for sanctions relief. The Obama administration reportedly believes that Iran’s recent exportation of low-enriched uranium to Russia has led to the “breakout time” for an Iranian nuclear weapon lengthening by a factor of three, to between six and nine months.
But in reporting upon Kerry’s remarks, Arutz Sheva included a strong caveat, reflecting the skepticism of the US Congress and many other critics of the nuclear deal. It notes that the current breakout time constitutes a reduction from a period that had previously been shortened as Iran went on pursuing nuclear activities even in the midst of negotiations and early implementation. For instance, the International Atomic Energy Agency found that during the last three months, the quantities of low-enriched uranium stockpiled by Iran had actually increased.
Alongside Iran’s October and November ballistic missile tests and the general increase in anti-Western rhetoric, these late-stage enrichment efforts contribute to the notion that Iran’s long-term intentions may not be for compliance. The Obama administration has maintained that if Iran defies or cheats on the nuclear deal, the West will be able to quickly reinstitute sanctions, but critics are notably worried that the administration and its allies may either not be willing to take such measures or not have the tools to do so when it is necessary.
With this in mind, a number of congressmen have been insisting upon the renewal of the Iran Sanctions Act, with the general understanding that this would result in economic penalties remaining technically on the books, but in a suspended state as a result of executive action. Practically speaking, this would constitute the lifting of sanctions under the deal, but the Iranians have warned that any measures to renew or increase sanctions, even mere technical measures, would be considered to give license to Tehran to cancel the agreement.
Fox News reported on Tuesday that leading members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are considering bringing the issue of renewal to the floor of Congress as early as January or February. This may constitute the next major fight between Congress and the executive branch over the nuclear agreement. On Obama’s side, the challenge appears to be to preserve the deal against measures that do not strictly harm its implementation but nevertheless run a risk of offending Iran and giving it excuses to shift blame toward the US for long-term failure.
Meanwhile, it seems likely that this infighting within the US government will contribute to concerns and confusion among US business interests that are monitoring their prospects for initiating or reopening investments in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Platts reported upon this confusion on Tuesday, noting that US companies feel they are at risk of falling afoul of sanctions enforcement, are being unfairly kept out of the Iranian market compared to their European competitors, and are waiting for clarification from the US government on these and other points.
But at the same time that this illustrates the incentives that might exist for opening up the Iranian market from the US side, it also goes to show that American measures so far have not moved as quickly toward sanctions relief as some critics might fear. For the time being, the US appears to retain virtually all of its power to punish those US companies that do business with banned Iranian entities. But it remains to be seen whether this power or the will to use it would be impeded by allowing the Iran Sanctions Act to lapse.
What’s more, the current threat of sanctions enforcement does not seriously impact European companies. The EU was quick to suspend sanctions after the conclusion of the nuclear agreement and before there was confirmation of Iranian compliance with it. Since then, a number of trade delegations have passed between Iran and EU member states, and a number of tentative trade and investment agreements have been established. German companies, for instance, have now proposed 13 billion dollars’ worth of projects in the Iranian petrochemical industry, according to Trade Arabia.
But Iranian officials appear to be unsatisfied with these emerging effects of the nuclear deal. They have bitterly complained of any real or prospective measures by the US government that can be seen as obliquely limiting the effects of sanctions relief. These include the renewal of the Iran Sanction Act and the congressional decision last week to bar Iranian travelers from receiving visa waivers, as a result of national security concerns. Over the objections of congressmen, the Obama administration responded to the Iranians complaints on the latter issue by reassuring them that the State Department could help them to circumvent the major effects of the new rules.
This has been criticized as yet another major concession to Tehran, and it still does not appear to have generated reciprocal measures from the Islamic Republic. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty reported on Tuesday that more than 160 members of the Iranian parliament had signed a draft bill essentially seeking to extort money from the US in the form of compensations for supposed past harm. The topics raised by the bill go so far as to include the actions of foreign governments and events that merely affected Iranians on foreign territory, including the stampede that occurred at the hajj in Mecca in September.
By the bill’s reckoning, the US owes Iran compensation for this and other incidents simply because of America’s longstanding alliance with Saudi Arabia. But of course this stated justification may merely serve as cover for Iranian efforts to gain as much financial leverage as the clerical regime can from the climate of rapprochement surrounding the nuclear deal.