Former Official Highlights Risks of Iran Sanctions Bill S. 722

Colin Kahl, former Deputy Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor to the Vice President under the Obama administration, highlighted his concerns with Iran sanctions bill S. 722 (the ‘Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017’) in a panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies this morning.

Additionally, later in the afternoon, Kahl joined with six other former Obama administration officials – Antony J. Blinken, Avril Haines, Jeff Prescott, Jon Finer, Philip Gordon and Robert Malley – to warn against the bill in an article published on Foreign Policy. The officials cautioned that “[a]ny marginal benefit of this legislation is outweighed by the risk of giving an impulsive president license to take steps that could undermine a deal that is working, isolate the United States, and put U.S. troops at risk.”

At the panel discussion at CSIS, Kahl noted: 

  • The language in section 4 is “overly broad” and risks complicating JCPOA implementation and dividing the P5+1 coalition;
  • Section 5 “effectively designates the IRGC a terrorist organization,” which would be “gratuitous” and could risk putting U.S. troops in harm’s way;
  • Section 8 would complicate sanctions lifting on Transition Day, conveying that the U.S. is ”unilaterally renegotiating the terms of the agreement.”
Critically, Kahl warns that the bill risks loosening the restraints on the Trump administration to avoid activities that would explicitly undermine the deal, as the administration would be able to point to consensus in Congress to justify its activities:
 
Section 4 – ballistic missile sanctions:
 
“The problem there is how overly broad the sectors or the contributions to the ballistic missile program that could be sanctionable are, and there’s a real risk that it could be so overly broad it could complicate the execution of say, the procurement channel that’s part of the JCPOA, or it could run sideways from European interests in a way that splits the P5+1 coalition.”
 
“As staff and Members of Congress tweak the legislation, they should make sure that any steps they take on the ballistic missile front aren’t so overly broad that it unintentionally runs sideways from basically our commitments under the deal or consensus that underlies the implementation of the deal.”
 
Section 5 – IRGC designation:
 
The concern there is that it effectively designates the IRGC as a terrorist organization, and the problem with that is not that the IRGC are good folks and we shouldn’t be mean to them. We can already designate and sanction any member of the IRGC and the IRGC as an organization under existing authorities, so the bill actually does nothing beyond being a symbolic gesture to basically rub it in the nose of the IRGC, so it’s gratuitous.” 
 
“And, I understand politics and the need to show that you’re tough on Iran, but in this case the symbolism could have the inadvertent effect of triggering a response by the IRGC, and if that response by the IRGC is something that actually puts our troops, our men and women, in harm’s way – it strikes me that’s a price that’s not worth paying for a symbolic or political thing that won’t make any difference to our ability to actually do what we can already do against the IRGC. In areas like this, I get the politics but politics should not be the reason to do it.”
 
Section 8 – Transition Day:
 
“Section 8 of the bill, which I think in some ways is the most problematic as it relates to the JCPOA…the problem there is it puts a new condition on us lifting sanctions on Transition Day.”
 
 
The problem with the bill is it adds a new condition – it says you can’t lift those sanctions unless the administration at the time can certify that actors are not engaged in objectionable behavior in non-nuclear areas, which is again completely unnecessary because if they’re engaged in non-nuclear malicious activities – cyber, terrorism, human rights violations – we can designate them under other authorities…So it doesn’t get us anything, but what it does do is it conveys that we are unilaterally renegotiating the terms of the agreement and that we are looking for a way, a loophole to not lift nuclear related sanctions by recasting them as non-nuclear sanctions. And I worry that Iran will say, ‘Well, screw us, then screw you – here are all our conditions for us living up to’ – and they’ll start unilaterally renegotiating the deal.”
 
“I agree with Mike that the deal is imperfect, that there are problems with when it sunsets and how long it is and what the constraints are and there are things that are outside the four corners of the deal – but you don’t solve that problem by putting unilateral conditions and unilaterally renegotiating the terms that were negotiated in the deal. You solve that by actually sitting with our European allies…plus the Chinese and the Russians – and the Iranians – and trying to figure out ways to smooth out or clarify the ambiguities and make some corrections.
 
“So I am very worried about this…In the Obama administration, you could almost be assured that they would use the national security waivers if they thought that implementing things that Congress did would run sideways from the implementation of the deal. The Trump administration is not going to use those waivers, and in fact they may see this as a bipartisan permission slip to be even more assertive, because in a world where the Trump administration owns the failure of the deal, then they may be restrained in pushing past the boundaries of the deal. In a world where they think they have permission from the Congress on both sides of the aisle to dial up enforcement and other activities against Iran to 11, then suddenly they can say look it’s not us, there’s a bipartisan consensus…I say this to my Democratic friends, you will own this too, if you sign up to this and things go sideways.”
 

About Author

Ryan CostelloRyan CostelloRyan Costello joined NIAC in April 2013 as a Policy Fellow. In this role, Ryan monitors legislation, conducts research and writing, and coordinates advocacy efforts. Ryan previously served as a Program Associate at the Connect U.S. Fund, where he focused on nuclear non-proliferation policy.
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