A ballistic missile is launched and tested in an undisclosed location, Iran, March 9, 2016. .
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Senate's near-unanimous decision on Thursday to sanction Iran for its human rights record, its ballistic missile work and its funding of militant organizations worldwide marks a new phase in congressional policy toward the nation just two years after a nuclear deal with its government bitterly divided Capitol Hill.
Those who opposed the 2015 accord feared it would secure Iran as a nuclear threshold state, providing Tehran with all the strategic benefits of a nuclear power without encumbering it with the costs that come with building the weapon itself. "Threshold" status would embolden the Iranians, Republicans argued, and would aggravate the problems they have wrought across the Middle East.
Yet Democrats said that Iran's "destabilizing activities" could still be punished under the nuclear accord– that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action dealt exclusively with the nuclear issue, and that Congress was free to offset some of its adverse effects with measures that would combat Tehran's regional ambitions. To the extent that Iran's actions require "non-nuclear" sanctions, Senate Democrats said they would be prepared to act.
Those positions aligned Democrats and Republicans on a path forward, and the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017 is the beginning of that path: 98 out of 100 senators voted in favor of the legislation, which now moves to the House for consideration.
Democrats who supported the bill were no longer held back by an administration protective of the nuclear deal and interested in rapprochement with Iran: Barack Obama's former secretary of state, John Kerry– who negotiated the JCPOA– lobbied against the legislation on Twitter to no avail. US President Donald Trump has not yet commented on the bill and has ordered a State Department review of policy toward Iran and the nuclear accord.
Whatever those studies conclude, the congressional landscape on Iran appears to be reverting back to a pre-JCPOA era, when Democrats and Republicans often unified against Iran and resorted to sanctions tools to express it. The consensus strategy is to uphold the agreement in the short-term, countering Iran in "non-nuclear" spheres.
An 'unchecked Iran' could follow same path as North Korea: Tillerson (credit: REUTERS)
"There will be economic, diplomatic and material consequences for their aggression toward US interests, values and allies," said Ben Cardin, ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee and a top Democratic senator who opposed the nuclear deal.
The new bill would impose mandatory ballistic missile sanctions, target Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and implement a new arms embargo.
"Iran is still the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. They are supporting groups that have toppled pro-Western governments throughout the Middle East, they have humiliated and unlawfully imprisoned American sailors on the high seas, and they continuously and flagrantly violate UN restrictions on their missile program," said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. "These new sanctions will be a strong statement by the Congress and the Trump administration– that business as usual with Iran is over."