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November 18, 2016

House Votes on Two Iran Bills After Trump Election

Congress1-700x426Washington, DC – In its first week in session following the election of Donald Trump, the House of Representatives passed two bills that further stoked anxieties about the U.S. commitment to upholding the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). While there have been some indications that Trump’s promise to “dismantle” the multilateral accord was campaign hyperbole, the fervor among some lawmakers to unravel or outright violate the agreement may be the biggest threat to the JCPOA.

On Tuesday, the House voted to extend the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) – the legislative framework for many of the nuclear-related sanctions on Iran that are currently suspended under the nuclear deal. The U.S. is required to lift many of the expiring sanctions by “Transition Day,” which is expected in 2023, but the House bill extends the sanctions to December 31, 2026. The move sends further signals of uncertainty regarding the U.S. commitment to uphold the terms of the JCPOA, given that Congress would need to take further action to repeal the sanctions. However, Iran deal opponents did refrain from attaching additional measures to the bill – which 12 organizations including NIAC Action urged against – and instead passed a “clean” extension of the sanctions framework. The White House did not oppose the extension, though argued the authorities were redundant and unnecessary to extend. The Senate is expected to pass the clean extension before year’s end, though both chambers have promised to consider further sanctions that could threaten the JCPOA when they convene early next year. Iranian officials have indicated they may view the extension as a violation of the accord, meaning there is a potential for a serious diplomatic spat over sanctions in the midst of a volitaile U.S. presidential transition.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, the House passed legislation (H.R. 5711) aimed at blocking Boeing from selling civilian aircraft to Iran. “I’m disappointed that we are here yet again debating another Republican bill to undermine the Iran nuclear deal, a deal that so far has delivered on its principled goal of blocking Iran’s path of nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future,” lamented Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), who led Democratic opposition to the measure. The bill passed the House by a 243-174 vote over strong objections from Democrats and a veto threat from the White House, which said the bill violates U.S. commitments to allow aircraft sales to Iran under the nuclear deal. If passed into law, the bill would “burn down the JCPOA” and leave the U.S. without a diplomatic solution to Iran, warned Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA). “What is our ‘Plan B’ if Congress provokes the collapse of this agreement? Crickets. We don’t have one.”

Democrats sought to block the bill by requiring a vote to add sanctions to entities involved in cyber attacks against the U.S. election process–an unsubtle jab at Donald Trump’s apparent affection for Russia, which was implicated in hacks against the Democratic National Committee to sway the election results. Republicans voted down the amendment.

While the legislation is not expected to come up for a vote in the Senate and is largely viewed as a messaging bill for House Iran deal opponents to flex their muscles, it does send a warning to business that even permissible dealings with Iran will come under intense political scrutiny. Many non-U.S. banks and businesses have refrained from entering Iran even after multilateral sanctions were lifted under the nuclear deal, thanks in part to continued U.S. financial restrictions and a near-total ban on trade with the country. But opponents of the nuclear deal are wary that the Boeing sale could begin to thaw the chilling effect and begin to normalize economic ties with the country as envisioned under the JCPOA.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) argued that the Boeing sale serves American interests by “putting 100,000 Americans to work and building relationships” with Iranians. He added that “preventing the United States to follow through on this agreement,” would be “foolish” and serve the interest of hardliners in Iran eager to sabotage the accord.

Economic opportunities were a critical incentive to secure Iran’s agreement to limit and rollback its nuclear program, and the tepid response from businesses – including political difficulties in implementing the Boeing deal – could put Iran’s own compliance at risk. Hardline opponents of the nuclear talks, who claimed the negotiations and subsequent agreement were a trap that the U.S. would not honor, say their arguments have been vindicated.

The concerns about the signals the House action would send given the upcoming change in administrations was also a major concern raised by Democrats. “In light of the political transitions taking place in our country,” said Rep. David Price (D-NC), “now is especially the time when the U.S. must keep its word, its word to our allies and the international community.”

Rep. Waters noted, “if ever there was a time when the U.S. should be affirming our commitment to the international agreement to promote our stability and security in such a volatile global environment, the time is now.”

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