Congress Deals Obama Defeat on Iran Sanctions

In a major defeat for President Obama, Congress overwhelmingly ignored the Obama administration’s plea to not extend the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996 because Obama officials claimed this could lead Tehran to back out of the president’s legacy nuclear deal with Iran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA).  Yesterday, the Senate voted to reapprove the Act by a vote of 99-0.  The House vote was nearly unanimous.

These veto-proof votes against President Obama did not just reflect his lame duck status.  Most members of Congress realize the JCPOA is a dangerous agreement that has worsened international security.  It has not stopped Iran from conducting nuclear weapons-related work and there are several reports of Iranian cheating on the deal.

Moreover, almost every member of Congress – even the minority who still support the nuclear deal –recognize that despite President Obama’s claim that the JCPOA would improve Iranian behavior and U.S.-Iran relations, both have significantly worsened since the agreement was announced in July 2015.

The Iran Sanctions Act targets non-nuclear Iranian WMD programs and Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism. Extending it will send a message to Iran that the United States demands that it cease its sponsorship of terrorism and not develop ballistic missiles, chemical weapons or biological weapons.

The Iran Sanctions Act also has nuclear sanctions that were suspended under the JCPOA but theoretically can be “snapped back” if Iran violates the agreement.  Iran has already violated the agreement and this law could give the Trump administration leverage to renegotiate or dismantle the JCPOA.

Predictably, Iranian officials are claiming the extension of these sanctions violates the JCPOA and threatened to retaliate.  The truth is that the JCPOA was negotiated to keep laws like the Iran Sanctions Act in place.  It’s also unlikely that Iran will pull out of the JCPOA over the extension of the Act since it is so favorable to Iran.

The extension of the Iran Sanctions Act does not solve the problem of how the Trump administration should deal with the JCPOA which Mr. Trump has called a disaster and one of the worst international agreements ever negotiated.  The Trump administration needs to decide whether to renegotiate the agreement, tear it up, or stick with the deal in hope that Iran will withdraw.  (I strongly recommend the first two options.)

Whatever Mr. Trump decides to do on the Iran deal, the overwhelming congressional votes extending the Iran Sanctions indicate strong bipartisan concerns about the threat from Iran that probably will translate into bipartisan congressional support for a significant change in policy toward the JCPOA by the Trump administration.

About Fred Fleitz

Fred Fleitz, president of the Center for Security Policy, served in 2018 as deputy assistant to the president and to the chief of staff of the National Security Council. He previously held national-security jobs with the CIA, the DIA, the Department of State, and the House Intelligence Committee staff. Twitter @fredfleitz.