TEHRAN, Iran — The US House of Representatives voted to extend the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) on Nov. 15, and the Senate followed suit on Dec. 1, approving the measure in a vote of 99-0 and sending it to President Barack Obama for his signature. “We believe the Iran Sanctions Act extension is not necessary, but we also believe it won't interfere with the Iran deal,” said Eric Schultz, deputy White House press secretary. “I would expect the president to sign this piece of legislation.”
US sanctions against Iran had originally been set out in 1996 in the Iran Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) “to impose sanctions on persons making certain investments directly and significantly contributing to the enhancement of the ability of Iran or Libya to develop its petroleum resources.” After sanctions on Libya ended, the ILSA was renamed the Iran Sanctions Act, which passed in 2006.
The day after the November House vote, Iran adopted a strident tone in warning about its consequences. On Nov. 16, Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), said, “If you extend the sanctions, this will mean kicking out the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], and we will confront it through implementing powerful technical packages.” Moreover, in a Nov. 23 meeting with members of the volunteer Basij forces, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said, “If these sanctions are extended, it will surely constitute a violation of the JCPOA, and [the United States] should know that the Islamic Republic will definitely react to it.”
Responding to the Senate vote, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Dec. 3 that the extension of the ISA would have no “practical effect.” Furthermore, President Hassan Rouhani appeared before the Iranian parliament on Dec. 4 and said, “We have not violated the JCPOA, and we will never violate the JCPOA. However, we will not tolerate the JCPOA’s violation,” sending a message to the incoming US administration. He added that the ISA extension constituted a “blatant contravention of the JCPOA and will be followed by Iran’s decisive response.”
On the same day, 264 of the 290 lawmakers in the Reformist and moderate-dominated parliament issued a statement strongly demanding that the Rouhani administration take “due retaliatory measures” against the move to extend ISA at the “soonest possible time.” In keeping with this sentiment, Mojtaba Zolnour, chairman of the parliamentary nuclear subcommittee, announced Dec. 4 that a bill had been introduced to ask the government to “develop peaceful nuclear technology within the framework of the [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty].”
Two days later, Rouhani further elaborated on his view of the ISA extension in a speech at Tehran University, stating, “If Obama signs ISA but uses waiver rights to cease its implementation, it still infringes [upon] the nuclear agreement and we will react to it."
Implementation of JCPOA after the ISA renewal
On Dec. 2, Hamid Aboutalebi, Rouhani’s deputy chief of staff for political affairs, tweeted that if the nuclear deal is a multilateral commitment, its violation by one of its signatories cannot be countered by a reciprocal unilateral violation. Two days later, Aboutalebi wrote on the government's official website, “Based on the US Congress’ approval [of the ISA], the JCPOA has been violated in terms of its content, [but] its practical violation will be prevented due to the executive guidelines of the incumbent president. We should only take reciprocal action through the mechanisms defined within the JCPOA, and we must not commit a practical violation of the JCPOA.” In this regard, a White House official had said Dec. 2, “I expect the President will sign the legislation when it reaches his desk, and the Secretary of State will retain the authority to continue to waive all of the relevant nuclear-related sanctions authorized by the legislation.”
Also on Dec. 2, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, had said that Tehran would “act wisely and with prudence” on the issue of the ISA extension. As such, it appears that Iran had no intention of abrogating the nuclear deal and would only seek to respond to perceived violations on the part of the United States through the JCPOA’s so-called Joint Commission. Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani said on Dec. 5 that in keeping with this “wise and prudent” strategy, the members of the Council for Monitoring the JCPOA would meet in the “coming days” to make a decision on whether to “file a complaint” with the Joint Commission or take “retaliatory measures.”
Of note, regardless of whether the bill by the parliament to resume certain nuclear activities were to become law, parliament would not have a major role to play in the matter. Indeed, the body in Iran empowered to make decisions in case of a violation of the nuclear deal is the Council for Monitoring the JCPOA. The council has eight members, all appointed by the supreme leader: Rouhani, Zarif, Larijani, Shamkhani, Salehi, Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan, plus the supreme leader’s representative to the SNSC, Saeed Jalili, and the supreme leader’s foreign policy adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati.
Congress and Iran's hard-liners
Since Rouhani's election in 2013, Iranian hard-liners have consistently sought to discredit the moderate president and his administration’s achievements, including the nuclear deal. In this vein, the ISA extension has provided additional ammunition to critics of the deal in Tehran, leading to renewed attacks on Rouhani and the nuclear negotiating team.
Hossein Shariatmadari, managing editor of the hard-line daily Kayhan, said on Dec. 5, “We have no alternative except returning from the wrong path we pursued.” Hitting at Rouhani, he added, “[They] were saying that the JCPOA should be taught in schools. Yes, it should be taught, as a disaster.”
Noting White House officials’ remarks about Obama not vetoing the ISA measure, Abdullah Ganji, chief editor of the hard-line daily Javan, wrote on Dec. 2, “It is wise and in the interest of the country that Dr. Rouhani does not run in the next [presidential] election, because his chosen path has led to a dead end.”
It is clear that such actions by the United States will put Iranian moderates under pressure ahead of the May 2017 presidential vote. Without a doubt, hard-liners are now using the weapon just handed to them by their American counterparts to damage the Rouhani administration’s reputation. The picture, however, is more complex than moderates simply being thrown under the bus amid rising US hostility. Indeed, the debacle involving one prominent hard-liner accusing Zarif of being an American spy — only to retract the allegation and publicly apologize, apparently following pressure from on high — shows that adverse US policies could also induce high-level unity in Tehran.
Yet, at the end of the day, US officials have repeatedly said that the nuclear deal could be an excellent stepping-stone for more cooperation with Iran on regional issues, but actions are not reflecting the rhetoric. If decision-makers in Washington want to see the gates of engagement with Iran close, they can continue to pass legislation like the ISA extension.
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