At the end of 2013, shortly after a temporary deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief was signed, a bill was introduced that would have increased sanctions on Iran. At the beginning of 2015, after failing to advance the previous year’s sanctions bill, and after Republicans regained control of the Senate, another sanctions bill almost identical to the first was introduced. It also failed to come to a vote. Both bills were clearly designed to violate the terms of the temporary agreement and derail negotiations. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) freely admitted the insidious motivation behind the bills, proclaiming, “The end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of congressional action. It is very much an intended consequence – a feature, not a bug.”
This New Year, despite Congress upholding the Nuclear Deal in September, reports of Iran following through with its commitments, and John Kerry’s announcement that the landmark nuclear deal is “days away from implementation if all goes well,” sanctions bills are back with a vengeance. But this time, rather than derailing negotiations, their purpose is to violate the spirit if not the letter of the deal and undermine its implementation.
In response to Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests, many members of Congress have been demanding that the administration punish Iran for violating a UN resolution separate from the Nuclear Deal that prohibits Iran from testing ballistic missiles. In mid-December, 21 Democratic Senators signed a letter to the President expressing their deep concern over Iran’s missile tests, and calling on the administration to take action to punish Iran with additional sanctions. On Jan 6, 7 Democratic leaders in the House wrote a letter to the administration reiterating the call of the first letter – urging the President “to announce such sanctions without further delay.”
Yesterday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed the Iran Terror Finance Transparency Act, which prohibits the President from lifting certain sanctions on Iran’s financial institutions that need to be lifted in order for us to comply with the JCPOA. If this bill becomes law, it will violate the spirit and the letter of the JCPOA, and Iran will likely respond in kind. The bill currently has 57 sponsors including its author Rep. Steve Russell (R-OK), all of whom are Republican. The bill would almost certainly be vetoed and it’s very unlikely that a veto would be overridden. But this isn’t the only sanctions bill in the works.
On Wednesday, Rep. Joseph Kennedy III (D-MA) and Rep. Theodore Deutch (D-FL) introduced the Zero Tolerance for Terror Act. In addition to Kennedy and Deutch, the bill was originally co-sponsored by Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Juan Vargas (D-CA), John Delaney (D-MD), Joe Wilson (R-SC), and Jim Bridenstine (R-OK). The bill would create an expedited procedure for imposing new sanctions on Iran in the event of a Presidential determination that Iran has sponsored terrorism or violated UN resolutions related to missile testing. Because this bill has bipartisan support and doesn’t actually impose new sanctions that would violate the Nuclear Deal, it has a better chance of becoming law than the Iran Terror Finance Transparency Act. But while this bill doesn’t appear to explicitly violate the deal, the sanctions it would expedite are very likely to.
But if that is that case, then why is it that many of the Democrats who supported the deal are now turning around and undermining it? Partly, it has to do with the framing of this latest round of sanctions. As with the previous round, powerful lobby groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) are painting these sanctions bills as a way to demonstrate to Iran that the U.S. will respond forcefully to any violation of the Nuclear Deal. Never mind the fact that AIPAC spent roughly $40 million on a national ad campaign attacking the deal over the summer. Partly, the notion that there should be some sort of punitive response to a violation of a U.N. resolution sounds reasonable enough. Whatever their reasoning is, Congressional Democrats should think twice before supporting this latest blitz of sanctions legislation. At best, these sanctions will provoke Iran and lead to more undesirable behavior on its part, and at worst, they will lead to the complete unraveling of the Nuclear Deal, which would put an all out war with Iran back on the table.