New Senate Sanctions Risks Killing JCPOA, Putting US on War Path
Washington, DC – NIAC Action issued the following statement regarding the introduction of new Iran sanctions legislation in the Senate:
“The ‘Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017’ would risk killing the JCPOA and undoing the restrictions in place on Iran’s nuclear program and could very well provoke a military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran.
“This legislation takes the dangerous and unprecedented step of designating the IRGC as a terrorist group, a move opposed by defense and security officials. It provides President Trump with new authorities to impose sanctions on Iran that would undermine and likely violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). If enacted, this bill risks providing Donald Trump a Congressional stamp of approval to engage in extreme provocations in the region and to violate U.S. obligations under the JCPOA in ways that could prove fatal to the nuclear accord.
“The timing of this bill is also suspect. Instead of responding to world events or new challenges, it is being timed to coincide with the annual AIPAC conference. Considering that this administration has not even established a policy towards Iran, it is incongruous for Congress to rush into such legislation at this time. Moreover, Iran’s Presidential election is now less than two months away, and provocative sanctions bills could tilt the balance of Iranian politics away from moderates supportive of engagement with the West and in favor of hardline candidates in the mold of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“This legislation was cosponsored by some lawmakers who are supporters of the JCPOA or who wish to continue to see it implemented. We believe that many involved in the process made an effort to produce a sanctions bill that is consistent with the JCPOA, but unfortunately this bill falls short and thus not only risks upsetting the nuclear accord but also triggering broader conflict with Iran. Those legislators who seek to uphold the JCPOA and avoid an unnecessary war with Iran should make changes to the bill to ensure that it matches their rhetoric. Until such time as major changes are made, we will oppose it as a dangerous measure and a likely deal killer.
“Congress should not be considering legislation that green-lights renewed confrontations between the U.S. and Iran, particularly under an administration that appears disinclined to pursue caution in the tense relationship with Iran and a extremely sensitive time. We urge lawmakers to oppose this bill and call for critical changes to its text to ensure the JCPOA is protected and the U.S. doesn’t backslide into a military confrontation with Iran.”
Background on the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017
The bill would designate the IRGC a terrorist group – a designation anathema to the U.S. defense and intelligence establishment. Specifically, the bill would sanction the IRGC pursuant to Executive Order 13224, which is the foundational order to the U.S.’s Specially Designated Global Terrorist Sanctions Program (“SDGT Program”). While this designation would have no appreciable sanctions impact – as it is duplicative of existing sanctions authorities – it could have serious consequences for U.S. personnel on the ground in Iraq, subjecting them to retaliation from Iran-backed militia groups. Last month, when the Trump administration outlined its plans to designate the IRGC a terrorist group, the Pentagon and intelligence officials pushed back and forced the administration to rethink its approach. The Pentagon’s pushback against U.S. plans to designate the IRGC a terrorist group recall the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s opposition to such designation back during the Bush administration. For Congress to designate the IRGC a terrorist group over the vocal opposition of the U.S. defense and intelligence establishment would be not just irresponsible, but would risk the lives of Americans.
The bill would also mandate the re-imposition of sanctions on Iranian entities that were de-listed pursuant to the JCPOA – measures that could constitute a clear violation of the nuclear deal. § 4 of the bill mandates the President to impose sanctions on any person engaging in activities that materially contribute or that pose a risk of materially contributing to Iran’s ballistic missile program. While § 4 of the bill replicates the sanctions authorities currently provided to the President via Executive Order 13382, the bill would mandate the President to utilize these authorities to impose sanctions on persons engaged in Iran’s ballistic missile program, as well as on persons and entities that provide material support for such designated parties. For example, this bill would require the President to impose sanctions on an Iranian bank if that Iranian bank provides financial services to an Iranian government entity designated for engaging in activities that materially contribute to Iran’s ballistic missile program. It does not matter whether the financial services provided to the entity are in regards to activities unrelated to Iran’s ballistic missile program (e.g., the payment of government employee salaries). Such a designation would re-impose sanctions on Iranian banks that were delisted pursuant to the JCPOA. Considering that the JCPOA prohibits the re-imposition of sanctions lifted under the nuclear accord, the re-imposition of sanctions on Iranian banks – as an example – would likely constitute a JCPOA violation.
The bill could also limit the President’s ability to adhere to U.S. commitments under the JCPOA. Specifically, § 8 of the bill would require the President to provide certification that a person designated pursuant to EO 13382 and 13224 has not engaged in activities for which they were designated for the three-month period preceding any potential de-listing. However, the U.S. is scheduled to de-list a number of Iranian persons and entities designated pursuant to EO 13382 on Transition Day. § 8 of the bill could thus impede the President’s ability to adhere to U.S. commitments and remove those parties from U.S. sanctions lists on the pre-determined schedule. This would be a clear violation of the JCPOA.
The bill would also provide the President with new sanctions authorities, including one related to persons engaged in human rights abuses in Iran and one related to persons engaged in activities that materially contribute to Iran’s supply of conventional weapons. Without knowing how the President will exercise these new sanctions authorities, it is unclear what implications such provisions may have for U.S. adherence to its JCPOA commitments. Until Congress has more clarity as to the Trump administration’s policy outlook towards Iran, however, it should hold its fire before encouraging the President to utilize his sanctions authorities and target Iran.