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US Congress Resists Sales to Iran, while Trump Team Weighs Options for Nuclear Deal

The legislation is also expected to face a presidential veto even if it does pass both chambers of the Senate. In that case, the House vote tally would be insufficient to sustain an override, and the Senate numbers would likely be even further from the necessary two-thirds majority. These anticipated obstacles are good news for Iran, which would otherwise have no evident way of moving forward with two large-scale aircraft purchase agreements that were concluded earlier this autumn. The license ban would have affected not only the sale of American-made Boeing aircraft but also aircraft manufactured by the France-based Airbus, which heavily relies on American-made components. 

The unlikelihood of the bill’s passage reflects the great extent to which certain issues of Iran policy break down along party lines. However, this is not true of all such issues. Even the license ban enjoys some support among the Democratic Party, and this support is positively overwhelming with respect to other issues on which Congress is seeking to undermine the outgoing president. 

The Democratic willingness to break with President Obama is demonstrated by another recent congressional vote. The Hill reports that on Tuesday, with 419 votes, the House passed the bill reauthorizing the Iran Sanctions Act for an additional 10 years following its 2017 expiration date. Only one member of the House voted against the bill, suggesting that the bill will enjoy similarly bipartisan support within the Senate. In light of this, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell confidently told reporters that Congress is going to pass the bill by the end of the year. 

President Obama has tentatively spoken against reauthorization, in what critics have interpreted as one of many signs that he is anxious to defend his signature foreign policy accomplishment, the controversial Iran nuclear agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Obama has argued that US government has sufficient tools to re-impose the sanctions that were suspended under the JCPOA, even if it does not reauthorize the Iran Sanctions Act. But on the whole, Congress clearly finds this argument unconvincing, largely because reauthorization could only be expected to strengthen those tools. 

In fact, Obama’s likely motivation for opposing reauthorization is his concerns about the fragility of the JCPOA, which President-elect Donald Trump aggressively derided on the campaign trail and promised to renegotiate. Iranian hardliners have also spoken out against the deal, or rather against the American implementation thereof. Both Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the allegedly more moderate President Hassan Rouhani have accused the US of violating the spirit of the deal by doing too little to encourage European investment in Iran. 

By attempting to obstruct commercial licenses, Congress has fueled that argument, even if the attempt is ultimately unsuccessful. Furthermore, Iranian officials have promised to view any further sanctions activity as a violation of the JCPOA, and this presumably includes the simple reauthorization of sanctions that would nonetheless remain suspended throughout the life of the deal. 

This rhetoric has led some to conclude that Tehran is looking for an excuse to walk away from the deal while blaming the US for its failure. Some also view Trump’s promise of renegotiation as another step in the direction of providing Iran with such an excuse. However, the incoming President and his Republican Congress will certainly have their own competing opportunities to portray the Islamic Republic as being in non-compliance with the JCPOA, and thus as being at fault for cancellation on either end. 

As has been pointed out elsewhere, one means by which Trump could force the revocation or renegotiation of the JCPOA is simply by enforcing its provisions more strictly. Roughly coinciding with Trump’s election, the International Atomic Energy Agency released a report indicating that Iran had, for the second time, violated the JCPOA’s restrictions on its production of heavy water, a byproduct of plutonium reactions. 

On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iranian officials had excused this violation – an excess of one metric ton over the 130 tons permitted – by saying that they did not believe the restriction to be a hard limit. This claim is not explicitly supported by the JCPOA, but was potentially made more plausible by the US’s effort to downplay the previously, larger violation of the heavy water limit. 

But despite Tehran’s excuses, the IAEA has since issued statements warning the Iranians about more of the same and urging them to strictly adhere to the provisions of the JCPOA, so as to avoid more situations that would test the boundaries of its implementation. Nevertheless, the Wall Street Journal quoted one nuclear expert as saying that Iran’s current rates of heavy water production make it uncomfortably likely that further excesses will accrue in the future. 

The heavy water issue is only one that was cited by Michael Rubin in an article in Commentary Magazine, to undermine President Obama’s claims that his successor should reconsider his opposition to the JCPOA because Iran has been compliant. Rubin argues that if Iran has remained in compliance, it has only done so by exploiting an agreement that is so porous that the Iranians “could drive a tank through its loopholes.” 

With regard to the heavy water issue, Rubin noted that the Obama administration was admittedly looking only at broad patterns of compliance, not at individual violations. He went on to suggest that this lack of specificity underscored the administration’s view that “no degree of violation is worth risking the bragging rights” associated with the negotiation of the JCPOA. 

Rubin’s editorial also addresses the issue of Iran’s work on ballistic missiles. In this area, too, the JCPOA is being enforced in a manner that is so flexible as to be frustrating to the deals skeptics within the US government. The United Nations resolution governing the JCPOA has overridden a previous resolution which categorically banned the Islamic Republic from test firing or expanding its work on missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. The new resolution merely “calls upon” Iran to avoid such work on missiles “design to be capable” of carrying such a payload. 

This problem was described in more detail in an editorial at Business Insider. It explained that the vague language allowed Iran to “simply say it’s working on a conventional missile, not one intended to carry a nuclear payload.” This, according to the author, is a glaring problem, and one that may require the incoming presidential administration to fix it through renegotiation. Furthermore, Business Insider suggests that this specific topic of negotiation may indeed be on the table, and may represent an alternative to unrealistic expectations of a 180-degree turn on the JCPOA. 

Even among Democrats, support of the JCPOA has been tentative on the basis of perceived weaknesses like the ballistic missile issue. And in light of the divided opinion showcased in recent congressional votes regarding Iran policy, it is possible that President Trump would enjoy bipartisan support for certain moves toward stronger implementation of the nuclear agreement.



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