Iran Sanctions Act Vote is First Step in Setting Future US Policy in the Region

Harsh critics of last year’s Iran nuclear agreement, which suspends many of those sanctions, have put forward plans to expand the period of enforcement or to add additional sanctions related to Iran’s support for terrorism or its human rights abuses. These sorts of additional provisions could be expected to be viewed by Iran as violations of the agreement and thus as potential reasons for its cancellation. But Iranian officials have previously indicated that they would view any sanctions efforts in this same light. This presumably includes a clean reauthorization of the ISA, or even the proposal put forward by some supporters of the nuclear agreement to shrink the period of reauthorization to eight years. 

Because of the implicit risk of a reactionary response from the Islamic Republic, the Obama administration has voiced opposition to the reauthorization, claiming that the US already has sufficient resources in place to penalize Iran for violations of the nuclear agreement, regardless of whether the ISA has been reauthorized. However, this is one area of Iran policy in which there is reportedly widespread agreement between congressional Republicans and Democrats. Thus, Reuters indicates that a clean reauthorization is expected to pass the House quick easily, although the Senate vote is more difficult to predict. 

Regardless of the precise outcome of the reauthorization, the debate over the ISA demonstrates the ongoing discord between different factions of the US government over the future of Iran policy. And as the US approaches the presidential elections scheduled for November 8, there are serious questions about which faction will prevail under a new presidential administration, whether it be Republican or Democrat. 

On Thursday, two news reports gave very different impressions of the prospective future of US policy toward Iran. On one hand, the UK’s Guardian newspaper suggested that even if Republican candidate Donald Trump were to win election, it is unlikely that he would be able to seriously undermine the nuclear agreement, much less tear it up as he has occasionally promised to do. But that claim is based on a premise with which not all political analysts agree: that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is “too obviously a good agreement for US, regional and world security” to risk abandoning. 

On the other hand, an article in Bloomberg expressed a much more critical view of the JCPOA but also indicated that the Hillary Clinton campaign may privately hold views about Iran policy that are not substantially more permissive than those of her Republican rival. At least two of Clinton’s prominent advisors, former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell and the campaigns top national security advisor Jake Sullivan, have advocated for a more aggressive policy than that of the current Democratic presidency of Barack Obama. 

Specifically, Morell has expressed interest in expanding economic sanctions on Iran’s behaviors outside of the nuclear sphere. He has also indicated that a Clinton administration should return to direct leadership in the Middle East in order to reassure traditionally Sunni allies and traditional adversaries to Iran. Both these positions were expressed by Sullivan as well, when he was quoted as saying, “We need to be raising the costs to Iran for its destabilizing behavior and we need to be raising the confidence of our Sunni partners.” 

But even if the shift to a more aggressive Iran policy is a foregone conclusion regardless of the outcome of the election, critics of the Obama administration may still question whether that shift will take place in time to constrain the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East and the world. Agence-France Presse reported on Thursday that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was set to meet with his Syrian and Russian counterparts, both collectively and individually, in order to discuss their future cooperation in the fight against ISIL militants and anti-Assad rebel groups in Syria. Such meetings arguably reflect tightening alliances among Assad’s supporters and growing prospects for the emergence of an anti-Western bloc centered around Iran. 

Such meetings come at a crucial time, as major offensives are underway against depleted rebel forces in Aleppo, Syria, and against the ISIL stronghold at Mosul, Iraq. A video report by Al Jazeera suggested on Thursday that the battle for Mosul would be vital to Iran’s political reach throughout the region, and that the underlying cooperation between the Iranian and Iraqi governments reflects the blurring of the lines between the two countries. For strict opponents of the Iranian regime, that trend threatens to eliminate Western and Arab influence from a crucially important region of the Middle East, replacing it with Iranian foreign activities that have been left unconstrained by the current US administration.