Review of US Congress Plans to Kill JCPOA

Review of US Congress Plans to Kill JCPOA
Review of US Congress Plans to Kill JCPOA

US lawmakers adopted a raft of measures to scupper last year's nuclear deal and return US policy toward Iran to the era before the accord, which is characterized by a zero-sum US approach that inevitably boiled down to only military options.

The US political website The Hill reviewed these measures in a recent article.

Iran reached a landmark agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, with the US and five other major powers on July 14 that will see sanctions against Tehran lifted in return for temporary restrictions on its nuclear work.

The "Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act of 2015" was adopted as part of the consolidated spending bill on December 16. The legislation was passed by Congress ostensibly to address concerns about terrorism related to the self-styled Islamic State and Al-Qaeda terrorist groups.

However, the legislation was written deliberately to include Iran, in effect treating anyone who travels to Iran as a security risk.

It must be emphasized that in all the years of US-Iran tensions, Congress has never before tried to limit the Visa Waiver Program in this manner. Only now, with the advent of the JCPOA era is Congress seeking to subvert new security concerns (unrelated to Iran) to demonize travel to Iran.

  Greater Oversight

In 2016, members of Congress will be seeking to use their authority to impose oversight–through both legislation and in hearings–over the JCPOA and other issues related to Iran.

On October 1, Sen. Ben Cardin and eight Democratic cosponsors introduced the Iran Policy Oversight Act of 2015, a bill to provide for greater congressional oversight of Iran's nuclear program and for other purposes.

Subsequently, on December 3, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Bob Corker and Cardin sent a letter to President Barack Obama outlining their plans for the ongoing oversight of JCPOA.

The letter states that the committee will implement "a rigorous program to ensure effective Congressional monitoring and oversight of this agreement as well as its regional and nonproliferation implications".

It details plans for numerous hearings and briefings that will be part of this program of oversight and at which administration officials will be expected to testify. The first of these oversight hearings was held on December 17.

Recent ballistic missile tests by Iran appear to violate UN Security Council resolutions, but they do not violate the JCPOA. For many members of Congress, this appears to be a distinction without a difference.

In recent weeks, a chorus of voices in Congress, from both sides of the aisle, has demanded a US response to Iranian ballistic missile tests. It remains to be seen if Congress will move from such calls for action to efforts to legislate a US response.

  Move to Extend Sanctions

Back in June 2015, Sens. Mark Kirk and Bob Menendez—from the outset two of the most active and vociferous opponents of diplomacy with Iran and the JCPOA—introduced a bill to extend sanctions on Iran until at least 2026 and to require the secretary of the US Treasury to report on the use by Iran of funds made available through sanctions relief.

At the time, it was clear that the real purpose of the bill was to scuttle any agreement with Iran and the bill stalled in committee.

Now, it appears that the senate may be considering moving ahead with the legislation, right on time to coincide with the JCPOA's "Implementation Day." That said, it should be noted that the sanctions legislation does not expire until December 2016–meaning that it is by no means imperative that Congress take action at this time.

It is also worth noting that if Iran violates JCPOA, there would be nothing preventing Congress from enacting new sanctions quickly.  The idea that a credible threat of "snapback" requires actions like extending the existing sanctions for another 10 years–sanctions that were crafted in the pre-JCPOA era, when sanctions were the only tool of US policy vis-à-vis Iran–makes no sense at all.

  Anti-IRGC Moves

A number of different pieces of legislation have already focused on the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps for use as a pretext to block lifting of sanctions.

A measure was submitted on December 18 by Sen. Brad Sherman and five cosponsors, purportedly "to provide for more effective sanctions against the IRGC or any of its officials, agents, or affiliates to counter [alleged] support for international terrorism and assistance" to Syria.

Sen. Peter Roskam and three GOP members presented a bill on December 15 "to impose sanctions against any entity with respect to which the IRGC owns, directly or indirectly, a 20% or greater interest in the entity, and for other purposes."

There have also been attempts by JCPOA opponents to encourage US to maintain or impose sanctions on Iran.  

December 1 saw the introduction of two measures, one by Roskam and five cosponsors in the House of Representatives and the other by Kirk and two cosponsors in the senate, "expressing the sense of Congress regarding the right of states and local governments to maintain economic sanctions against Iran".