Obama Expected to Sign Sanctions Renewal before Trump Initiates New Policy on Iran

Speaking to the Iranian parliament on Sunday, Rouhani insisted that President Obama is “obliged” to let the ISA expire, and he reiterated a common Iranian talking point about the renewal being a violation of the JCPOA. Leading members of the US Congress, however, insisted that the reauthorization of the sanctions bill would be essential to retaining a credible threat of “snap back” in the event that Iran is found to be in violation of the agreement. 

Agence-France Presse reported last week that the Obama administration had conclusively determined that renewal of the ISA was not prohibited by the JCPOA. As such, the president is expected to sign the bill, in defiance of Rouhani’s apparent ultimatum. In his remarks to parliament, Rouhani promised that the Iranian government would “act promptly” in response to the bill’s passage. It is unclear what sort of action was being promised, but Reuters had previously reported that two bills were being considered by Iranian lawmakers. 

Member of Parliament Akbar Ranjbarzadeh indicated on Friday that he would introduce a bill to fully halt implementation of the JCPOA. But an alternative bill was set to take the rather more moderate action of initiating a boycott of American products. The latter option would, in theory, preserve the sanctions relief negotiated under the JCPOA, but prevent the US from benefiting in the form of its own trade deals with Iran. The Seattle-based aircraft manufacturer Boeing recently received government authorization for the sale of jet liners to the Iranian fleet, but the multi-billion dollar deal would presumably be scuttled by Iran’s punitive action. 

It is highly likely that Iran would be willing to let go of this and other individual trade deals, regardless of how much it needs them. But the severity of that need will presumably constrain the Islamic Republic against purposefully cancelling the JCPOA altogether. This was the conclusion presented by the Los Angeles Times on Monday, in an article that also quoted Rouhani as saying that Iran has no intention of abandoning the deal. 

Rouhani insisted that the benefits of the deal were “clear to everybody,” despite the hardline criticism that has been levied against it for its failure to bring about an immediate and comprehensive economic recovery. Lingering threats from the US have made it difficult for the Iranians to find financing or to engage in trade that relies on the US dollar. Yet there have been numerous deals struck between Iran and global partners including several in Western Europe. And it is unlikely that even Iranian hardliners would relinquish these opportunities casually. 

The same thing appears to be true of Iran’s partners in those various trade deals, and this promises to further strengthen the JCPOA even as it faces threats both from Tehran and from Washington. UPI detailed a number of the trade and investment deals that have grown out of the nuclear agreement in an article on Monday. That article went on conclude that it will be difficult for US President-elect Donald Trump to convince the world to follow his lead when he takes office in January and begins pushing a more assertive Iran policy. 

AFP agreed with this assessment, making specific reference to China as a potential obstacle to Trump’s plans. As permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, China and Russia were both among the seven parties that negotiated the JCPOA. And both have been growing increasingly close to Iran. AFP notes that the Chinese Foreign Minister recently met with his Iranian counterpart and used the associated press conference to warn against domestic politics in the US creating a threat to the nuclear deal’s ongoing implementation. 

While campaigning for office, Trump described the JCPOA as one of the worst agreements in American history and repeatedly indicated that he would tear it up. Post-election analysis has tended to focus on the logistical difficulty of following through on such a promise where a multilateral agreement is concerned, and Trump has revised his position to emphasize the possibility of renegotiation. But the UPI and AFP reports cast serious doubt upon the prospects for him bringing even close US allies back to the table, let alone the Iranians themselves. 

What may very well come to pass under his administration is mutual escalation in rhetoric over the deal and the alleged violations on each side. Whereas the Iranians regard the ISA’s renewal as a violation of the “spirit” of the deal, American lawmakers have said the same thing about Iranian provocations, including repeated tests of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles that the Islamic Republic is “called upon” to avoid. 

The Americans have also accused Iran of violating the strict letter of the law, for instance by twice exceeding the deal’s limit on Iran’s stockpile of heavy water, a byproduct of nuclear reactions. These sorts of violations have been effectively disregarded by the Obama administration, which maintains that minor violations need not be met with a punitive response as long as they are corrected. The Trump administration can be expected to take a different view, and several analysts have suggested that by merely enforcing the deal strictly, the White House may be able to compel Iran to walk away from the deal. 

Trump may take other steps to antagonize the Iranians, as well. On Friday, Reuters reported that he had been speaking to congressional Republicans about the prospect for increasing the types of sanctions that are not covered by the JCPOA. This action had already been considered by some legislators in advance of the ISA’s renewal. The bill that passed the Senate last week and the House two weeks earlier was described as a “clean” reauthorization of the sanctions, and as such it passed overwhelmingly, with only one vote against it in the House and none in the Senate. The bill would have been much more contentious, however, if it had taken a different form, imposing new sanctions as well as renewing the existing ones. 

As well as seeking to avoid unnecessary controversy over the bill, the Republican leadership may have also determined that they would be in a much better position to impose new sanctions separately, under a president whose views on Iran policy are more similar to their own.  

Many of Trump’s advisors include persons who are notably hawkish on Iran, including some who are known supporters of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI or MEK), the banned resistance group that advocates a popular uprising and regime change in Iran. This has already begun to rattle some in Tehran.