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August 27, 2018
New Iran Sanctions Bill Introduced

Kelsey Davenport

A bipartisan group of 27 senators on Dec. 19 introduced legislation that would impose further sanctions on Iran, despite warnings by the Obama administration that additional sanctions will harm ongoing negotiations with Tehran over its controversial nuclear program and derail an interim agreement reached on Nov 24.

In a statement announcing the introduction of the bill, Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), the co-authors of the legislation, said that the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 proposes “prospective sanctions” if Iran violates the terms of the Nov. 24 initial deal or if the negotiators “fail to reach a final agreement.”

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a Dec. 19 press briefing that the administration has made it “very clear” to Congress that “it is not the time” to pass any additional sanctions and that such a move could “proactively undermine American diplomacy.” He said enacting the legislation is unnecessary because if Iran does not comply with the first-phase agreement, the administration could work with Congress “to very quickly pass new, effective sanctions.”

Iran and six world powers (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) have been negotiating over Tehran’s nuclear program for more than a decade. Iran maintains that its nuclear activities are entirely peaceful, but the international community is concerned that Iran may choose to pursue nuclear weapons.

On Nov. 24, Iran and the six countries, or P5+1, reached an interim deal, which will limit Iran’s nuclear activities over six months in exchange for relief from some sanctions and a commitment that no new sanctions will be imposed. (See ACT, December 2013.) This deal will go into effect when the negotiators work out the details of the joint committee that will monitor implementation of the agreement (see). The six-month time period can be extended if the two sides agree to an extension.

Iranian Foreign Minister and lead negotiator Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a Dec. 7 interview with Time magazine that the “deal is dead” if the United States imposes more sanctions, even if they do not go into effect during the six-month time frame of the first-phase agreement.

A summary of the bill released on Dec. 19 by the sponsors says that the legislation “does not violate” the agreement because the sanctions detailed in the legislation “would only be imposed if Iran violates the interim agreement” or the negotiators fail to reach a comprehensive deal.

But Carney said that the administration is concerned about how Iran and the international community would react to new sanctions “no matter how they’re structured.”

The bill would allow the president to suspend the sanctions imposed by the legislation for six months if he certifies to Congress every 30 days that Iran is complying with the Nov. 24 interim agreement. In addition, the president must certify that Iran has not supported or financed any acts of terrorism against the United States or tested a ballistic missile with a range greater than 500 kilometers.

These measures are not included in the steps that Iran must take as part of the agreement.

A Senate staffer familiar with the legislation told Arms Control Today in a Dec. 19 interview that although some of the provisions in the legislation may be dropped in the course of negotiations on a final bill, the legislation “may have the support” to override a presidential veto. That requires a two-thirds majority of each chamber of Congress.

Proposed Sanctions

If passed into law, the legislation would require countries importing oil from Iran to reduce their imports by 30 percent within the first year and to near zero within two years. In a Dec. 19 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a European official said the legislation “is a concern because it threatens international support for the sanctions.” He said that it “may not be feasible” for all countries to meet the oil import limitations required under the legislation, which could “erode support” for U.S. sanctions.

Under current law, the president can waive the sanctions on countries that continue to import Iranian oil after he has certified that they have “significantly reduced” their purchases from Iran. Waivers are granted for six-month periods, but can be renewed. (See ACT, January/February 2012.) On Nov. 29, the State Department renewed waivers for several countries that continue to import oil from Iran, including China, India, South Korea, and Turkey.

The European official said that the European Union has “done its part” to demonstrate its commitment to the deal and that the draft legislation sends a signal that the United States cannot “fulfill its part of the agreement.”

In a Dec. 16 statement following a meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said that the council “made a commitment to refrain from additional sanctions for the [six-month] implementation period.” Ashton, who leads the P5+1 negotiating team, said that parties should “refrain from actions that could delay” implementation of the Nov. 24 agreement.

If adopted, the legislation would expand business and financial sanctions on Iran’s mining and construction sectors. It also would block access to foreign assets by individuals who enable Iran to evade sanctions. This would also apply to companies that work in Iran or with its government to bypass sanctions. The bill also would increase the number of senior officials, including those working in the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the Ministry of Defense, and the Office of the Supreme Leader, who would be denied access to assets outside of Iran.

Senate Opposition

Prior to the introduction of the bill, which had 48 co-sponsors as of Jan. 6, a group of 10 senators sent a letter to Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) urging that no new sanctions be imposed on Iran. The Dec. 18 letter said that, during negotiations, “new sanctions would play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see the negotiations fail.” All 10 senators that signed the letter are committee chairmen, including Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), who heads the banking committee.

During a Dec. 12 hearing on Iran by that committee, Johnson said that the panel, which often has jurisdiction over sanctions bills, would not move forward on new sanctions legislation against Iran because it would be “counterproductive” and could “shatter Western unity” on the nuclear issue. Johnson said that he and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), the ranking member of the banking committee, had crafted legislation to be introduced if Iran does not comply with the interim agreement or if negotiations to reach a comprehensive agreement fail.

The letter also called for vigorous implementation of existing sanctions and periodic updates from the administration on the implementation of the Nov. 24 plan. If negotiations fail or Iran is not complying with its obligations under that agreement, new sanctions should be passed, the letter said.

Final Agreement

The new sanctions bill sets conditions for the comprehensive deal that the P5+1 is to negotiate with Iran. The Nov. 24 agreement sets out the basic parameters for that deal, including a “mutually defined” Iranian uranium-enrichment program and the lifting of all U.S. and UN nuclear-related sanctions.

Yet, the bill will allow the president to suspend the nuclear-related sanctions on Iran for only one year once a comprehensive deal is reached. The president can continue suspending the sanctions for one-year periods if Iran continues complying with the comprehensive deal. Under the bill, the deal must include dismantlement of Iran’s uranium-enrichment capabilities and its heavy-water reactor. Additional verification measures, including continuous on-site inspections, would also be required.

The European official said this is a “non-starter” for negotiating the comprehensive agreement” because it “violates the parameters laid down on Nov. 24.”