WASHINGTON – US President Donald Trump will sign into law a new sanctions bill targeting Iran, Russia and North Korea that earned overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress this month, the White House said on Friday.
He had little choice: The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act earned near-unanimous support in both the House and Senate, whose members threatened to override a veto should the president have chosen to use it.
The bill punishes Moscow for its “significant” cyber attack and influence campaign during the 2016 presidential election, and limits the president’s ability to alleviate new sanctions on Russia. It also further targets existing US sanctions on Iran and requires the Trump administration report to Congress on Tehran’s collaboration with Pyongyang.
Trump “read early drafts of the bill and negotiated regarding critical elements of it,” the White House press office said, announcing his support. “He has now reviewed the final version and, based on its responsiveness to his negotiations, approves the bill and intends to sign it.”
The president remained noncommittal until Friday, and lawmakers questioned whether he would choose a Pennsylvania Avenue showdown over his eagerness to change Washington’s policy toward the Russian Federation. The president’s associates are under investigation for possibly colluding with Moscow in its effort to defeat Hillary Clinton last year.
“The near unanimous votes for the sanctions legislation in Congress represent the strong will of the American people to see Russia take steps to improve relations with the United States,” said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “We hope that there will be cooperation between our two countries on major global issues and these sanctions will no longer be necessary.
“We will work closely with our friends and Allies to ensure our messages to Russia, Iran, and North Korea are clearly understood,” the secretary added.
Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, claimed on Wednesday that the new sanctions law would stymie implementation of a landmark international deal governing its nuclear program, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The legislation amounts to a tired move from the American congress and a “conclusion of previous US sanctions in nonnuclear fields,” Araghchi said, according to state-run media. Araghchi was Tehran’s chief negotiator during the nuclear talks.
“As a result, the draft sanctions law is incompatible with different clauses of the JCPOA,” he added, “under which the US is committed to implementing the deal with good will and in a constructive atmosphere.”
But US groups supportive of the 2015 nuclear accord worked with Senate and House leadership to ensure this new sanctions bill fully complies with the JCPOA – a condition of Democratic support, said Patrick Clawson, director for research and an Iran specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“If you look at the text of the JCPOA, what the US said it was going to do was actually extremely limited and specific,” explained Clawson, who said the bill includes new visa restrictions on individuals who have been a part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
“The Iranians would likely say that you cannot relabel the same sanctions as a missile sanction and take the same actions under a different guise,” said Stephen Rademaker, a former Bush administration official and nonproliferation expert now with the Podesta Group. “But the sponsors of the legislation would say its entirely consistent with the JCPOA – and as evidence of that, they would point to comments from the Obama administration at the time, who said the US was only obligated to end its nuclear-related sanctions.”
EU officials have criticized the bill in recent days, concerned in particular with language from the original Senate version that would negatively impact Europe’s energy sector. The “extra-territorial” reach of secondary US sanctions– those which target companies beyond America’s immediate jurisdiction – troubles the French government, but have proven to be Washington’s most effective sanctions tools in recent years.
“Any new sanctions represent a threat to the viability of the nuclear deal, which was a significant accomplishment for EU diplomacy, as well as a threat to future business on Iran,” said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow in the Brookings Center for Middle East Policy. “They don’t want to see the deal eroded by American egotism and they don’t want to see it jeopardized by a perception in Iran that its benefits have been insignificant.”
Maloney said the JCPOA clearly allows the US to pass new sanctions against Iran on matters outside the nuclear file: “It was clear throughout the negotiations and in the text of the JCPOA that significant US restrictions on Iran’s economy would remain intact,” she said, “nor does the deal preclude the imposition of new measures on grounds unrelated to Iran’s nuclear program.”
Iranian officials blame the US for poor execution of the nuclear accord, for slow foreign investment and bank re-engagement, and for acting in “bad faith” through its preparation of new sanctions. But the Trump administration argues the nuclear deal was intended, in part, to provide Iran with a fresh start in the international community, in which it has operated as a rogue state since its Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Iran has not seized that opportunity, according to the president’s aides.
“It is up to the administration to decide who actually will be sanctioned – the bill is a framework, but the administration chooses which individuals and entities are designated on a case-by-case basis,” said Rademaker. “It’ll be very interesting to see how the Trump administration implements this.”
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