US congressional leaders are considering legislation that would renew the Iran Sanctions Act over a year before it is set to expire, as well as new sanctions targeting Iran’s terrorism-related activities that would re-list several entities relieved of sanctions under this month’s nuclear deal.
The intended effect of the new approach to sanctions would be to alleviate fears among lawmakers that the deal, which will lead to tens of billions of dollars in swift sanctions relief, might dramatically increase Iran’s funding of terrorism worldwide – a primary fear regarding Iran’s becoming a nuclear weapons-threshold state in the first place.
But at a hearing in the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said the strategy may ultimately have the effect of scuttling the agreement.
Republican Senators vow to kill Iran deal after Kerry briefing
Tehran, too, stated on Tuesday that reimposing the same sanctions under a different name would force it to “reconsider its commitments” under the nuclear deal.
The approach assumes that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the nuclear agreement that world powers reached with Iran in Vienna on July 14 – will survive a congressional vote on its merits that is scheduled for September.
Should critics of the deal fail to garner support from over two-thirds of both chambers, the JCPOA will enter its first of phase implementation. Iran may receive sanctions relief, including access to up to $150 billion in frozen assets, within months of complying with initial nuclear-related tasks.
But Iran’s envoy to the United Nations told the Security Council on Tuesday that the deal would be compromised should agreed-upon sanctions relief be “impaired by continued application or the imposition of new sanctions with a nature and scope identical or similar to those that were in place prior to the implementation date, irrespective of whether such new sanctions are introduced on nuclear-related or other grounds, unless the issues are remedied within a reasonably short time.”
At the Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Lew said that Congress “cannot just reimpose the nuclear sanctions with a new label.” And Kerry said the legislature would not be allowed to create new sanctions against Iran’s other illicit activities as a “phony excuse” to replace nuclear-related sanctions.
“Now would not be the appropriate time” to renew the Iran Sanctions Act, which is set to expire at the end of 2016, Lew said. “It’s premature to take action.”
Lew said that some entities delisted from sanctions by the European Union could be subject to new listings under US law. But their movement from one list to another could not be en masse, with the effect of reconstituting sanctions under the guise of targeting Iran’s human rights abuses, trafficking, terrorism-financing or other activities, he stressed.
At a hearing last week with the same Obama administration principals, including Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) said he disagreed with Lew’s assessment.
“I’m going to move to reauthorize them because I believe it should be part of the deterrence,” Menendez said. “It seems to me that if you want a deterrent, Iran has to know consequences.”
Menendez added his hopes that the sanctions would never have to be reimposed, and indeed, both Kerry and Lew said they were not sure a renewal of the Iran Sanctions Act would be necessary for the US to “snap back” sanctions against Iran in the event of noncompliance.
Tuesday’s hearing on the Hill was a heated affair, with several congressmen expressing anger at the final product reached in Vienna. And several Democratic lawmakers expressed concerns over the agreement.
Ranking committee member Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York) pushed back at claims by Kerry that the agreement ensured “forever” that Iran could not become a nuclear power.
“The truth is, after 15 years,” Engel said, “they are legitimized as a nuclear-threshold state.”
Kerry, however, called the claim “nonsense.”
The Obama administration contends that the JCPOA verifiably ensures that Iran cannot acquire a nuclear weapon. But the Israeli government says it paves Iran’s pathway to nuclear-weapons capacity and increases the likelihood of war in the region.
“I am absolutely convinced beyond any doubt that this deal makes Israel safer,” Kerry told the House, “and the region, and the world.”
But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued his campaign against the deal on Tuesday, warning that it legitimized Iran’s nuclear weapons program as well as its aggressive and terrorist behavior in the region.
“Iran and Hezbollah organize a terrorist network that covers over 30 countries on five continents, including... just about every country in Europe,” Netanyahu said after meeting with Cyprus’s president. “The dangers come primarily from militant Islam, either led by the radical Shi’ites headed by Iran, or led by the radical Sunnis, at the moment headed by ISIS [Islamic State].”
Kerry said he “understands” Israel’s concerns, but noted during the hearing the endorsement of the deal from Rep. Sander Levin (D-Michigan), a prominent Jewish member of the House. Kerry made note of Levin’s Jewish faith when flagging his endorsement, which was published while Kerry was at the hearing.
The secretary of state asserted that Iran would never capitulate under endless sanctions pressure, and repeated his claim that war was “almost inevitable” if Congress rejected the agreement.
“I’ve heard people talk about dismantling [the Iranian] program,” Kerry added. “That’s not going to happen.”
A CNN/ORC poll published Tuesday found that a majority of Americans want Congress to reject the deal, which will require substantial support from the Democratic caucus. While 52 percent said Congress should oppose the deal, 44% said it should be approved.
The poll was conducted between July 22 and 25 and had a margin sampling error of ±3 percentage points.