Report

Congress Issues a Warning to Iran and a Rebuff to the Obama Administration

Senators unanimously extend sanctions on Iran in a symbolic message to Tehran, ending a tentative thaw in U.S relations.

A S-200 surface-to-air missile is driven past Iranian military commanders during the annual military parade marking the anniversary of the start of Iran's 1980-1988 war with Iraq, on September 22, 2015, in the capital Tehran.  AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE        (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
A S-200 surface-to-air missile is driven past Iranian military commanders during the annual military parade marking the anniversary of the start of Iran's 1980-1988 war with Iraq, on September 22, 2015, in the capital Tehran. AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

The Senate’s vote to renew sanctions against Iran for another 10 years has delivered a symbolic warning to Tehran and a bipartisan snub of the White House, which worries the move could raise tensions with Iran.

Secretary of State John Kerry and other officials had discreetly lobbied lawmakers to drop the measure, arguing that the U.S. president already has sweeping authority to reimpose sanctions that were lifted under a nuclear agreement with Iran. American officials also unsuccessfully warned that even threatening to revive sanctions could undercut the more moderate elements of the clerical regime, led by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is pressed to show his public the benefits of the nuclear deal before elections in 2017.

But lawmakers who backed the legislation on Thursday — including Democrats who supported the Iran nuclear agreement signed last year — said it was vital to convey that Tehran would be held accountable if it violated the terms of the nuclear deal. And they emphasized that extending the Iran Sanctions Act, which was first adopted in 1996, did not violate the nuclear accord.

“Congress’ action today should send a signal to the Iranian government and to the world that the United States is serious about enforcement of the nuclear agreement,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement after Thursday’s 99-0 vote.

The House approved renewing the legislation two weeks ago by a lopsided 419-1 margin. And despite the administration’s view that the renewal is unnecessary, President Barack Obama is expected to sign the law into force.

The July 2015 agreement between world powers – Russia, China, Germany, Britain, France, and the United States – and Iran imposed strict limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in return for a lifting of an array of international and U.S. sanctions that had crippled Iran’s economy. The negotiations also opened a diplomatic dialogue between the United States and Iran not seen since the Islamic Republic’s 1979 revolution.

Although the two countries have not had formal diplomatic relations since the revolution, which toppled the country’s monarch, Kerry and Iran’s foreign minister, the American-educated Mohammad Javad Zarif, have forged a rapport that offered the possibility of a U.S.-Iran detente.

But Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election likely has killed off any prospect of a continued thaw between the two governments, as the president-elect and the Republican-controlled Congress have vowed to ratchet up pressure on Iran and possibly jettison the nuclear accord.

Trump’s picks for national security advisor, CIA director and defense secretary are all outspoken critics of the deal who describe Iran as the single biggest threat to the United States.

Since the election, European diplomats have appealed to Trump’s team and advisors not to abandon the nuclear agreement. The Europeans say that tearing up the accord or sabotaging it would mean the end of intrusive international inspections of Iran’s atomic sites, prompt Tehran to rush to build a bomb and possibly trigger a dangerous confrontation leading to war.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, slammed the Senate action through his Instagram account, with a post repeating his earlier warning that Tehran would be ready to retaliate if sanctions were renewed by Congress. The extension of the Iran Sanctions Act would represent a violation of the nuclear agreement and “the Islamic Republic would definitely react to it,” he told members of the country’s Revolutionary Guard last week.

Even if the nuclear agreement remains in place, Thursday’s vote could mark the first step in a new cycle of tension between the United States and Iran as Republican lawmakers and Trump’s conservative policy advisors take a tougher line with the Tehran regime. Republican members in Congress plan to introduce new sanctions by March — separate from the nuclear deal — that would penalize Iran over its ballistic missile tests, its support for militants across the Middle East, its armed backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its alleged arms shipments to Houthi rebels in Yemen, congressional staffers and experts said.

Trump’s administration also likely will adopt a more aggressive interpretation of existing U.S. sanctions against Iran. The incoming administration’s Treasury Department could opt to issue new guidelines that would have the effect of discouraging foreign banks from financing commercial transactions with Iranian companies — without requiring breaching the nuclear deal or adopting new legislation.

One option favored by conservative policy experts would have the Treasury Department impose a wider prohibition on Iranian companies subject to sanctions. Iranian firms in which the Revolutionary Guard has a 51 percent majority share are blacklisted under current rules, but the threshold could be dropped to a 25 percent share. Such a change could mean hundreds of Iranian firms would be blacklisted, forcing foreign investors to cancel some potential deals.

The Obama administration has tried to reassure European and other foreign banks they will not run afoul of U.S. prohibitions if they arrange commercial deals in Iran. But a Trump White House is expected to deliver a different message, experts said.

Critics of the Iran nuclear deal argue the United States is under no obligation from the agreement to help Iran attract foreign investment, and that Tehran has become emboldened as a result of the Obama administration’s approach.

Trump’s advisors and Republicans in Congress have rejected the Obama administration’s concerns that any strengthening of sanctions could tip the balance in favor of a more hardline faction in Iran. They say that despite internal divisions inside the regime over tactics, the country’s leadership as a whole shares the goal of pursuing nuclear weapons.

“Our weakness has been an inducement for Iran’s accelerated malign activities. A show of strength in the U.S. Congress and a new administration could actually provide a deterrent,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who has advised lawmakers on sanctions policy.

Photo credit: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

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