Just weeks after the Iran nuclear deal took effect, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is taking fresh aim at Tehran with stepped-up sanctions to punish the Islamic Republic for aggressive non-nuclear activities.
Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and at least one other senator are crafting new measures to address everything from Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests to the country’s human rights violations to a reauthorization of the soon-expiring Iran Sanctions Act (ISA). The measures, which are likely to come up in February, will be Congress’ latest attempts to ensure President Obama punishes Tehran for bad behavior in the wake of the now-implemented nuclear deal.
“We are looking at ways of having a much stronger pushback on the violations that took place,” Corker said of his proposed sanctions aimed at Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests.
The ballistic missile measure is part of a trio Corker is readying, along with a reauthorization of ISA — a sweeping, longstanding law to curb Iran’s nuclear and missile activities as well as its support for terrorism through sanctions on the trade, energy, defense and banking sectors. Corker is also crafting a third measure, but declined to identify its content.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) is also planning a package of “actions that we should be considering against Iran outside the nuclear portfolio.” Menendez has already co-authored, along with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), legislation to extend ISA past 2016, and wants to step up sanctions against Tehran for its ballistic missile tests and human rights violations.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has made no promises about whether Iran legislation will be taken up by the Senate. His spokeswoman said it was too early for such questions, though McConnell continues to be in touch with Corker about committee business.
Both Corker and Menendez — along with every Senate Republican and three other Senate Democrats — opposed the Iran nuclear deal when Congress voted on it in September. Their actions mark the first significant move by lawmakers against Iran since the pact took effect as they seek to keep Tehran on a tight leash. It remains to be seen how the congressional pushback will be greeted by the White House.
And it’s unclear whether Democrats who supported the nuclear pact will sign on to efforts to punish Tehran for non-nuclear violations. On the other end of the spectrum, Republicans – primarily in the House – spent the last several months offering measures to either stymie or slow-walk implementation of the nuclear deal.
Some Democrats were very upset with the administration’s slow reaction to reports of Iran conducting ballistic missile tests seemingly in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Amidst the fusillade of Republican criticism, Democrats also penned letters to Obama and drafted bills to create an accelerated pathway for Iran sanctions in Congress.
The administration eventually added 11 entities and individuals to its sanctions list in retaliation for the ballistic missile tests, announcing the list in the wake of the nuclear deal’s implementation. Many Republicans ridiculed the gesture, and Corker criticized it as “not particularly strong.”
Since implementation day, Democratic leaders – including some who were skeptics of the nuclear deal – have praised the administration for progress in getting Iran to give up centrifuges, ship the bulk of its enriched uranium out of the country, and disable the Arak nuclear reactor. But moving forward, Democrats are also stressing Congress must exercise oversight to ensure Iran is complying with the deal.
There is room to do more, Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.), suggested in the days following implementation.
“Iran has received their initial relief,” said Cardin, who voted against the Iran deal but committed to support its implementation. “Therefore, I think Congress can be bolder.”
How much bolder, however, depends on how much bipartisan momentum there is in Congress to sanction Iran, and how much pushback lawmakers get from the Obama administration.
Despite repeated promises the nuclear deal would not compromise the ability to sanction Iran for non-nuclear infractions, the administration resisted efforts to advance other Iran sanctions in the period between the deal’s conclusion and implementation. Lawmakers argued they needed to reauthorize the ISA, at least, in order to have a ready regime of sanctions to “snap back” to, should Iran breach its obligations under the deal.
But over the summer, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew argued it would be “premature to talk about extending” ISA before it approached its late 2016 expiration date. Many speculated that officials were in fact concerned that Iran would perceive such a move as potentially jeopardizing the deal.
To date, Iran sanctions proposals from Congress have covered a broad scope.
Cardin has already authored a measure that is popular among Senate Democrats to give more aid to Israel, further rein in Iran’s ability to enrich uranium, and set up a procedure for imposing sanctions on Tehran quickly. While he is not working with Corker to draft legislation right now, he also believes that ISA should be reauthorized.