Dear Senators: Push Back Against Iran, but Not at the Expense of the Nuclear Deal
Members of Congress considering new Iran sanctions legislation should have open eyes regarding the Trump administration's attitude toward the nuclear deal.
During our time in government, there were few issues on which it was easier to build a bipartisan consensus in Congress than the need to contend with the range of threats posed by Iran. Congress played a critical role in penalizing Iran for supporting terrorism, providing support to U.S. partners in the region threatened by Iran, and establishing the sanctions regime that, combined with tough diplomacy, led to a deal that prevents Iran from developing or acquiring nuclear weapons. Momentum is again building in Congress to impose additional sanctions on Iran, including with the introduction last week of the Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017 by Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Robert Menendez. The bill has already garnered more than two-dozen cosponsors. Unfortunately, as currently drafted, this bill would do more harm than good.
Thanks in large part to Congress’s support — including some difficult votes — the United States and our partners were able to address the most immediate and consequential threat posed by Iran. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran has dismantled much of its nuclear infrastructure: removing two-thirds of the centrifuges it had installed (well over 10,000 centrifuges), shipping out 98 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium, decommissioning a reactor capable of producing plutonium for a bomb, and putting all of its nuclear facilities under strict international monitoring.
Iran has committed in writing that, pursuant to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it will never seek a nuclear weapon and has put all key elements of its program under close surveillance. Most important of all: The deal is working.
By all accounts — including those of International Atomic Energy Agency, inspectors we have trained, and our own intelligence community — Iran is complying with its commitments. In other words, we were able to eliminate a potential threat to our allies and our nation without firing a shot — and the only price we paid was a relaxation of those international sanctions whose very purpose was to enable us to address the nuclear threat at the negotiating table. Non-nuclear sanctions, on matters like ballistic missiles, terrorism, and human rights violations, remain in place. And Iran essentially paid for the nuclear deal with its own money, which the international community had frozen in banks around the world, to increase pressure on Iranian leaders to make a deal. In short, President Donald Trump has inherited an Iran policy that leaves us significantly safer than when his predecessor took office.
This context is important in evaluating the potential upsides — and downsides — of new legislation to impose additional sanctions on Iran.
Many senators will be tempted to support the Corker-Menendez legislation, which at first glance seems to accomplish a rare feat in Washington these days: bringing together bipartisan support to address a known national-security threat. We share concerns about threats from Iran to the United States and our allies, including the challenges posed by Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for terrorism. But when it comes to an arrangement as complex as the JCPOA, the details matter, and this legislation, in its current form, includes several significant risks that could undermine the nuclear deal.
First, the bill adds new conditions that must be met before Washington can lift sanctions on certain Iranian parties in the future, including sanctions we are already committed to remove if Tehran continues to comply with the nuclear deal. According to the draft legislation, lifting sanctions on such Iranian entities would require a certification that they had not supported or facilitated ballistic missile or terrorist activity. This provision is unnecessary and could give Iran an excuse to undermine the deal. It is unnecessary because once nuclear-related sanctions are removed years from now, as required by the JCPOA, nothing in the deal prevents the administration in power from immediately using legal authorities already on the books to re-designate any individuals or entities that support terrorism or Iran’s ballistic missile program. And it is problematic because gratuitously adding new conditions could be read by Iran as unilaterally altering the terms of the deal, casting doubt on our future compliance. This could provide Iran a pretext to take reciprocal action — such as adding conditions to the performance of its own commitments. If our Chinese, European, or Russian negotiating partners agree that we are altering the deal, the international consensus necessary to keep pressure on Iran to abide by the deal could erode.
Second, the legislation would, most likely, lead the president to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) as a terrorist group. This is a step that the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations considered, but declined to take because of its limited benefits and significant downside risks. Given that existing non-nuclear U.S. sanctions on Iran remain in place, the IRGC and its leaders are already subject to U.S. sanctions. Adding a global terrorism designation would mostly be a symbolic gesture, with limited practical effect. However, doing so could have considerable political effect inside Iran and potentially elsewhere. In particular, it would ignore years of warnings by our own military that such a designation could strengthen Iranian voices that would like to reignite open hostilities against the United States, potentially increasing the risk to our troops in Iraq and elsewhere in the region — that at times operate in close proximity to IRGC-supported groups — and complicating the counter-Islamic State campaign. There may come a time when such a step is justified, but it should be taken only after carefully weighing costs and benefits — and with a clear policy objective in mind. Doing so through legislatively mandated sanctions with no obvious practical benefit would be an unwise move at this time.
Third, by mandating sanctions on any person or entity that “poses a risk of materially contributing” to Iran’s ballistic missile program, the bill introduces a standard that is overly broad and vague. Such a loose definition could potentially be used to impose sanctions in violation of the JCPOA — particularly when in the hands of an administration that is overtly hostile to the deal.
Defenders of the bill point to the fact that it grants the Trump administration waiver authority for these problematic provisions. Yet we believe it would be counterproductive for Congress to give bipartisan approval to new, unnecessary sanctions authorities that, if deployed, could result in clear violations of the nuclear deal, potentially hurt our shared commitment to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and expose our troops to unnecessary danger. We continue to support continued designations, under existing authorities, of persons or entities who support terrorism or are involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program, without putting at risk an international deal that has removed the most significant threat we and our allies faced in the region. But Congress should not take any steps that our international partners might view as violating a deal that, so far, has fulfilled its goals. Rather than containing Iran, such steps would isolate the United States.
Finally, while we believe politics should play no role in critical national security decisions, members of Congress considering new Iran sanctions legislation should have open eyes regarding the Trump administration’s attitude toward the nuclear deal and its overall approach toward Iran. Trump promised during his campaign that his “number one priority is to dismantle” the deal. On February 2, then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn publicly, and vaguely, put Iran “on notice,” followed the next day by Trump declaring on Twitter that Iran was “playing with fire.” Trump’s team has not since publicly outlined any overall approach to Iran policy, engaged openly with Iranian diplomats, or publicly committed to working with our closest allies in keeping the nuclear deal intact. In this uncertain environment, Congress should be a voice of caution and restraint. Any 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.
Photo credit: RICK WILKING/AFP/Getty Images
Jeffrey Prescott served as a special assistant to the president and senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Persian Gulf states on the National Security Council. He joined the Barack Obama administration in 2010 as a White House fellow and was Vice President Joe Biden's deputy national security advisor and senior Asia advisor. Previously, he was a senior research scholar and lecturer at Yale Law School and deputy director of Yale’s China Center. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Susan Jakes, and two daughters. @jeffreyprescott
Philip Gordon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as a special assistant for the Middle East under U.S. President Barack Obama.