January 12, 2016

Memo: Two House Democrats Introduce Problematic Iran Sanctions Measures

Two Democratic-led Iran sanctions bills have been introduced in the House and pose a considerable challenge to the Obama administration’s efforts to insulate the nuclear agreement from non-nuclear-related issues. While it is unclear whether either of these bills will move forward, it is significant that the original sponsors include some lawmakers who voted in support of the Iran nuclear agreement.

H.R. 4333 – “Zero Tolerance for Terror Act”

The first of these – H.R. 4333, the ‘Zero Tolerance for Terror Act’ sponsored by House Democrat Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy (D-MA-4) – seeks to expedite the imposition of new terrorism and ballistic missile-related sanctions by mandating the President to notify Congress at each time a person or entity either:

  • Commits an act of international terrorism, at the direction of an Iranian government official, that threatens the United States or U.S. nationals, or provides assistance for such act; or
  • Commits an act in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions prohibiting Iran from engaging in certain activities related to ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons, including ballistic missile launches

Upon the President’s notification to the legislature, Congress is given a period of 60 days in which to adopt legislation under expedited procedure that either authorizes or requires the President to impose sanctions on the parties that engaged in such activities.  Once such legislation is introduced and referred to committee, the specified committee has a 10-day window to take action after which the bill can be discharged to the chamber floor for a circumscribed debate and final vote.  Such procedural requirements mean that Congress has limited time to evaluate the proposed legislation to impose sanctions on Iranian persons or entities prior to an actual vote.

By authorizing such a limited period of time for consideration of a proposed bill to impose additional sanctions on Iran, H.R. 4333 risks putting in place an inadequate process for careful deliberation of the potential consequences of imposing new sanctions on Iran.  This is especially true in light of the fact that Iran has undertaken measures to roll-back and constrain its nuclear program as a result of U.S. sanctions relief, and should Iran view the imposition of new sanctions as undermining its benefit of the nuclear bargain, then it may remove those restrictions and accelerate its nuclear program.

Moreover, H.R. 4333 is superfluous to the extent that the President has existing authorities to impose new sanctions on Iranian persons or entities engaged in either acts of international terrorism or development of Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities.  Those sanctions authorities exist under Executive Orders 13224 and 13382, respectively, and have been used by successive administrations to target Iranian activities anathema to U.S. interests.  Requiring the President to impose such sanctions on Iranian persons or entities ignores the sensitive diplomatic considerations that go into imposing new sanctions and unnecessarily ties the hands of the President in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.

H.R. 4342 – “Iran Ballistic Missile Prevention and Sanctions Act”

The second bill – H.R. 4342, the ‘Iran Ballistic Missile Prevention and Sanctions Act’ sponsored by House Democrat Rep. John K. Delaney (D-MD-6) – mandates the President to impose ISA-based sanctions if the President determines that a person transfers to and from Iran advanced conventional weapons or ballistic missiles, or technology, parts, components, or technical information related to advanced conventional weapons of ballistic missiles.  Moreover, the President is required to include such person on OFAC’s SDN List pursuant to Executive Orders 12938 and 13382, where their U.S.-based assets will then be frozen. 

Like H.R. 4333, this bill seeks to force the President’s hand when it comes to new sanctions related to Iran’s ballistic missile activities capable of delivering a nuclear weapon.  However, H.R. 4342 also goes a step further by sanctioning persons that transfer to or from Iran advanced conventional weapons and, as such, expands the scope of current sanctions targeting Iran. 

While the nuclear agreement does not prohibit the U.S. from imposing additional non-nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, Iran could view such additional sanctions as a mere pretext for re-imposing the nuclear-related sanctions lifted as part of the nuclear accord and allege a U.S. violation of the nuclear agreement.  Absent clear indications that Iranian activities are threatening direct U.S. interests, Congress should hold its fire in imposing additional sanctions.

This is especially true in light of the significant sanctions targeting Iran that will remain in place during the implementation phase of the nuclear agreement.  For instance, the United States has imposed sanctions on all of the major coordinators, managers, middle-men, and operators of Iran’s ballistic missile program, including Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (“MODAFL”), the Aerospace Industries Organization (“AIO”), the Defense Industries Organization (“DIO”), the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (“IRGC”), the IRGC Missile Command, and dozens of other Iranian and non-Iranian persons and entities.  As such, it is unlikely that additional sanctions measures on lesser Iranian persons and entities involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program (such as officials at MODAFL or Dubai-based money exchanges) will impose any significant cost on Iran for its missile-related activities. Yet, such sanctions measures may send a political message to Tehran that will be exploited by hardline factions at the expense of the voices of moderation.

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