Washington D.C. (SCF) – With sanctions against Russia put on hold, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is pushing through a bill to introduce more sanctions on Iran. Lawmakers will likely consider an Iran sanctions bill in coming weeks but will not do the same for a Russia sanctions bill, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tennessee senator Bob Corker, told reporters on May 1. According to him, it would be better to wait on Russia sanctions while the Senate Intelligence Committee conducts its investigation into the alleged Russia’s election interference.
The Iran sanctions bill was introduced in March by Bob Corker in retaliation for ballistic missile development, support for US-designated terrorist groups and human rights violations. The bill has bipartisan support. In mid-April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing the National Security Council to lead a 90-day, interagency review of the Iran nuclear deal and to evaluate whether the suspension of sanctions on Iran under the agreement would meet vital interests of US national security and if Iran really complied with the deal’s terms.
The announcement was made just a couple of weeks after State Secretary Rex Tillerson reported to Congress that Iran is meeting its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the Iran nuclear deal. The JCPOA is an agreement signed in 2015 under former US President Barack Obama along with China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, and the EU, to ensure that the Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
Under the deal, which took effect in January 2016, Iran agreed to restrain its nuclear program in exchange for the removal of economic and financial sanctions. President Trump has consistently criticized the deal but offered conflicting opinions on whether he would try to scrap it, renegotiate its terms, or keep it in place. The president faces a mid-May deadline, as imposed by Congress, to decide whether to continue the suspension of sanctions.
In a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, the Secretary said that Iran had been «compliant» through April 18 with its commitments under the 2015 agreement. The fact is indisputable – Iran is in compliance with the agreement and the other side has to keep its end of the bargain. It should be taken into account that Iran has never been involved in any terrorist act against the US. After all, the America and Iran are fighting the same enemy in Syria – the Islamic State group. If a spark kindles a big fire, the Islamic State will be the biggest winner.
There will be consequences. Presidential elections in Iran are scheduled to be held on May 19, 2017. The Senate Committee’s decision to go on with Iran bill will certainly strengthen the positions of conservative clerics opposing President Rouhani. Iranian hardliners are not happy with the moderate reformist president. The commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the country’s influential security institution, have been fiercely attacking Rouhani in public, even accusing him of «treason» for the nuclear agreement. Rouhani is the best candidate for the US. By undermining his position before the upcoming election, the US is shooting itself in the foot.
Hamid Reza Gholamzadeh, English editor of Tehran-based Mehr News Agency, believes that under Rouhani Iran is «trying to be a rational actor in foreign policy», and its officials are «very careful not to give excuse» for the US to launch an attack.
The stakes are especially high. Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iran’s supreme religious leader, is old enough and someone will succeed him in the near future. Whoever wins the May election will have a good chance to hold the highest position. The experience of being a president creates a track record, showing that a candidate can successfully rule such a large country as Iran. A presidential record has a big chance to become the decisive factor to tip the scales when the time comes to choose the country’s supreme leader.
Iran is an influential actor in Syria’s conflict and a member of the «big troika» brokering the Astana peace process. It’s hard to imagine the concept of interim zones of stability implemented successfully without finding some kind of arrangement with Iran.
If additional sanctions are introduced, Iran may withdraw from the deal. The IAEA inspector teams will not monitor Iran’s facilities anymore. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei both threatened retaliation if the United States extended the sanctions. In an August 2015 letter to President Hassan Rouhani, Ayatollah Khamenei warned that «Any imposition of sanctions at any level and under any pretext (including repetitive and fabricated pretexts of terrorism and human rights)… will constitute a violation of the JCPOA and [Iran] would be obligated to take the necessary action… and stop its activities committed under the JCPOA». In an atmosphere of sanctions, Iran’s hardliners will find ample pretexts to make good on their threat of reexamining their nuclear commitments.
Another consequence – if the US president unravels the deal, other world powers will go their own way with Iran. The rest of the world is unlikely to follow the US example and snap the sanctions back. That would put the United States at odds with the other parties to the accord – Russia, China France, Germany, and the UK, – who support the agreement. This would make the US the odd man out while the rest of the world would continue to trade with Iran.
The meeting of the Joint Commission of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action took place in Vienna on April 25. The seven participants, including the US representative, have «noted their continued adherence to JCPOA commitments and stressed the need to ensure its full and effective implementation». If additional sanctions go into effect, Iran will rightfully ask if there is any sense in abiding by the commitments if, no matter if you comply or not, sanctions is what you get. This is a wrong policy. Other nations dealing with the US would also ask the same question. The North Korean government and others will think twice before dealing with America.
A conflict may start accidentally even if nobody wants it as the tensions are getting higher. Unlike Iran, North Korea is a nuclear state ready to strike the US and its allies. If you run after two hares, you catch neither. Overstretched, the US will lose the capability to respond militarily to benefit other countries and actors hostile to it.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is on the way to have the Iran deal torn up. This step is fraught with very serious and far going implications, none of which benefits the US and the international community. Sanctions have failed to influence Russia. This policy is very much likely to make things worse, not better when it comes to Iran. As history teaches, sanctions do not work. Constructive engagement leads to better outcomes than sanctions. Hopefully, US lawmakers will make the right choice.
This post originally ran on Strategic Culture.