When Trump won the elections, many worried that it could lead to war between the United States and Iran, due to his desire to kill the Iran nuclear deal. Now, thanks to the U.S. Senate, we may be one step closer to this nightmare scenario: The Senate is poised to pass legislation that will place President Trump’s trigger-happy finger on the ignition switch of a deadly conflict with Iran.
Introduced to coincide with the annual American Israel Public Affairs Council (AIPAC) conference that concludes today, the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017 (S. 722) would give Trump new tools to violate the Iran nuclear deal. Perhaps most shockingly, a small group of Senate Democrats have joined Republicans to grant Trump some of the most dangerous authorities that would put the U.S. and Iran back on the path to war. The list of sponsors includes many of the usual suspects ― the consummate Iran hawks who worked to block Obama’s diplomacy with Iran and many of whom have sworn to “rip up” the nuclear deal: Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Bob Corker (R-TN), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Tom Cotton (R-AR), and Ted Cruz (R-TX). But the list of sponsors also includes Ben Cardin (D-MD) ― who opposed the nuclear deal but has said the U.S. should still abide by it ― as well as Bob Casey (D-PA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Chris Coons (D-DE), and Joe Donnelly (D-IN) who supported the deal.
Yet now these senators are signed onto legislation that requires non-nuclear certifications that would block the president from removing sanctions that are set to expire in later stages of the nuclear agreement. Why would Democratic senators who support the nuclear deal sign on to a measure that would violate the agreement? Because, they have argued, the bill gives the president a case-by-case waiver for the deal-killing provisions. That means that these senators are trusting Donald Trump with new deal-killing authorities and abdicating to him whether the U.S. honors the nuclear deal or “rips it to shreds.”
The bill also enables Trump to re-impose sanctions on Iranian entities that were de-listed pursuant to the accord. And it mandates sanctions that would broadly target any person or entity that ― knowingly or unknowingly ― contributes to Iran’s ballistic missile program, including universities that conduct research and banks that process payments for the government. This would amount to a trickle-down reimplementation of sanctions on much of Iran ― and a violation of the nuclear accord. Finally, the bill would designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an elite branch of the Iranian military, as a terrorist group ― a major escalation. The IRGC is a highly problematic organization that has benefitted from years of a sanctions economy at the expense of Iran’s people. It is not unusual for individuals within the IRGC to be sanctioned if they are believed to have connections to Iran’s ballistic missile program. However, designating a foreign military branch as a terrorist organization is an extremely dangerous provocation that Pentagon leaders in multiple administrations have advised against. AIPAC has urged for the IRGC designation for the past decade, yet Barack Obama and even George W. Bush resisted. But now, with Donald Trump in the White House, AIPAC is pressing ahead with its proposal.
If this legislation is passed the U.S. can expect a negative response from Tehran that will undermine moderates in Iran’s upcoming May elections and empower anti-U.S. hardliners. The ranking member of Iran’s Parliament, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, has already signaled that Iranian lawmakers will consider designating the U.S. Army as a terrorist organization in retaliation. It is naïve to assume this exchange will be limited to words. U.S. special forces and IRGC units are currently fighting ISIS on the same front in Mosul. Despite some evidence that IRGC units targeted U.S. troops with IEDs during the height of the Iraq War, there have been no such incidents since U.S. soldiers reentered Iraq in the summer of 2014. In effect, the IRGC and the U.S.-backed coalition have agreed to stay out of each other’s way as they fight a mutual enemy in ISIS. This bill could change that reality by removing any incentive for Iran not to attack U.S. troops in Iraq, forbidding any cooperation with IRGC-backed militias against ISIS, and placing our Iraqi allies in a diplomatic catch-22. It is for this very reason that back in 2007, President Bush’s Pentagon opposed an SDGT designation for the IRGC.
With thousands of AIPAC supporters on Capitol Hill to lobby senators on behalf of the bill, there is a strong chance that this bill could obtain filibuster-proof levels of support. If every Republican supports the bill, and just one more Democrat signs on, AIPAC’s bill will hit 60 votes. If that happens, and Congress sends Trump this legislation, our new president will be granted the tools and the greenlight from Congress to unravel the Iran deal and put us back on the path to a war with Iran. Unless Democratic senators stand up against this bill soon, opponents of the Iran nuclear deal may wipe away Obama’s diplomatic legacy with Iran faster than even they thought was possible.