Since Republicans took office on January 20, 2017 in the White House and the Congress, they have tried to put pressure on Iran’s economy and increase sanctions. In fact these restrictions and sanctions are against JCPOA.
Both the US Congress and the administration are reverting back to the decisions taken and the strategies adopted from 2009 to 2012 and are trying to impose new sanctions or bring back previous sanctions against Iran’s economy. The pretexts for imposing new sanctions are wider in scope than before and include three areas of missile program, support for terrorism and human rights abuses. In the light of prior experiences, American politicians have realized that when it comes to imposing sanctions on Iran, one should not focus on a single area; rather it is necessary to have a wide range of reasons for sanctions so that the sanctions would be comprehensive. Indeed, the main objective of the new strategy is smashing all the hopes or allegedly circumventing the sanctions. Generally speaking, the issues of US sanctions against Iran can be discussed in two areas. The first is the sphere of belief and thought and the section is the sphere of action and practice.
Regarding belief and thought, the consensus reached by experts, US administration officials and the Congress is that bringing back and continuing sanctions are highly effective tools and must be actively sought. However, as for action and practice, there is no consensus on how sanctions should be imposed, how sanctions relate to JCPOA, so that they would not violate it, the community targeted for imposing sanctions, and the way in which sanctions should be imposed (whether one-dimensional or multi-dimensional). Some experts have even hinted at violation of JCPOA in case sanctions are continued.
US actions against Iran over the last few months could be investigated in three levels of influential role players, think-tanks and the Congress. During this period, each of these three role players has tried to have its fair share of imposing restrictions on Iran.
The activities of think-tanks focus on two issues: how to deal with Iran’s regional activities and Iran’s presidential election. As for the strategies to deal with Iran’s activities in the region, over the last month, the most important suggestion was made by Washington Institute for Near East in which Michael Singh, who is a senior executive in this institute and the supporter of military action against Iran, in a document titled “Containing Iran: Suggestion for the New US Administration”, has suggested to the Trump administration that the US must adopt a strategy against Iran which establishes various defensive mechanisms against Iran, and prevents it from challenging the interests of the US and its allies. This policy could involve sustaining heavy costs and grave consequences for Iran in case it resorts to challenging activities against the interests of the US and its allies. According to him, this policy has three bases, including implementation and promotion of JCPOA, taking action against Iran’s regional activities, and promoting US regional coalitions. Washington Institute for the Near East actively seeks to redefine US coalition in the Middle East and to form new coalitions based on a series of shared objectives so that the relationships between the US and the countries in the region will be no longer based on mutual relationships and interests, rather based on collective interests and shared objectives.
Richard Nephew, who, along with the likes of John Zarate, David Cohen, and Mark Dubowitz, is considered the architect of sanctions against Iran, has encouraged the US administration to impose more sanctions against Iran and has suggested that even with JCPOA in place, it is possible to continue the sanctions against Iran. He has used the concerns about Iran’s missile programs, terrorism, and human rights as the pretext to increase pressure on Iran and to prevent Iran from joining world economy. These are the areas on which the US needs to focus more. Mark Dubowitz and Rail Gerecht have co-authored a document, suggesting to the US administration, “the Islamic Republic is now in a situation where the USSR was in the 1970s. If the US is really resolute on making sure the same thing that happened to USSR to happen for Iran, it must weaken Iran by keeping pressure on the Iranian religious government. A back-breaking sanctions regime which punishes Iran for human rights abuses is warranted”.
As for the presidential election in Iran, the Committee on Foreign Relations, has advised the Trump administration to avoid adopting policies which will be detrimental to Hassan Rouhani in the elections. The Foundation for Democracy has tried to defame Sayyed Ebrahim Raeesi and has said that his running for the presidential elections could encourage more people to vote, which will be detrimental to Raeesi. The Institute for the Atlantic Counsel has tried to implicate Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the elections. Newsweek has considered Raeesi’s election as an increased tension between Iran and the West.
- The Congress
At the Congressional level, activities against Iran could be investigated in two aspects: Proposing bills and hearings. As for proposing bills against Iran, the bills proposed call for the return of sanctions weakened as the result of JCPOA and increasing sanctions in new areas. The Congress has tried to direct the sanctions to Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to target its very existence and nature. In the same vein, over the last four months, 16 bills and resolutions have been proposed against Iran, out of which 9 bills directly consider Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as the root cause of all Iran’s regional policies and missile program and have demanded that Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps be designated as a terrorists organization. The Congress pursues two agenda simultaneously: first imposing financial and economic sanctions on Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and second designating Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. It seems that that there will be no major upheavals for the passing of economic and financial sanctions in the Congress. However, the idea of designating Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization has not yet received the approval of the US security agencies. Possible passing of this as a law could amount to attack against the integrity and sovereignty of a country and could trigger the retaliatory measures by Islamic Republic of Iran. The reason why the US has targeted Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is that in their view, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is the root cause and the main factor contributing to Iran’s military power such as Iran’s missile program and its marine, regional and cyberspace power. They believe that if Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is undermined, the entire system of Islamic Republic will be undermined. In addition, this will be a signal to the Iranians that the US just intends to target Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, not the Iranian people and that Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is to blame when it comes to increased international pressure against Iran. As they see things, this policy will result in a split and division in the country and could finally lead to the disintegration of the regime from within. Thus, for the purpose of exerting more pressure on Iran, in general, and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, in particular, Bob Croker (the Chief of Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Ed Royce, (the head of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the House of representatives) proposed two new bills i.e., S.772 (Act 2017, Dealing with Iran’s Destabilizing Activities) and Bill HR1698 (the Imposition of International Sanctions and Iran’s Ballistic Missiles) to be passed in the Senate and the House of Representatives, respectively. These two bills could be compared to ‘the Act of Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Disinvestment) and represent a new range of sanctions against Iran and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The most important items in the Senate bill which has received bipartisan support includes Articles 4, 5 and 7 which clearly violate JCPOA and call for the imposition of new sanctions against Iran’s missile program, designating Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization and imposing arms embargo. The new bill calls for the enforcement of Executive Order 13224 about Iran, which allows the US president to freeze the assets of individuals or groups conducting terrorist activities. This has specifically targeted Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and seeks to impose sanctions on it. Bob Croker has suggested that these steps are integral to containing Iran as a threat against US security.
The bill proposed in the House of Representatives is more detailed than the one proposed in the Senate and specifically imposes sanctions against individuals or entities violating the arms embargo and sanctions against Iran’s missile program under Resolution 2231. The bill proposed in the House of Representatives also requires the US administration to prepare periodical and regular reports detailing Iran’s violation of its commitments to the resolutions of the United Nations and the Security Council. Of course, out of fear that the two bills may have a negative impact on the presidential election in Iran, they have been postponed until after the elections. Based on international laws, this could be considered as meddling in Iran’s internal affairs, which the US is freely involved in.
Of another dimension of the activities related to the actions taken by the Congress against Iran, one can mention the hearings. So far, four hearings have been held about Iran. In these hearings, speakers insist on the need for designating Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. Generally speaking, the hearings held since 2016, have mainly concentrated on three issues: first, imposing financial sanctions and preventing Iran from accessing dollar in transactions, second, imposing targeted sanctions against Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its related entities and third, fighting against Iran’s increased influence in the region.
In the Senate hearing on March 28 in the Committee of Foreign Relations titled “US Strategy against Iran”, Michael Singh from the Washington Institute for the Near East and Martin Indyk were the speakers and both emphasized the need for containing Iran’s influence in the region. Micheal Singh pointed out that it is necessary for the US to adopt a deterrant strategy against Iran, based on three objectives: arms deterrence, regional deterrence and global deterrence. He reiterated the need for increased pressure on Iran to leave Syria and Iraq and the need for more investment on Iraq’s security forces. Martin Indyk also held that the US comprehensive strategy against Iran must have 6 bases: 1. Complete implementation of the nuclear deal, 2. Supporting Haider Al Abadi’s government and Iraq’s armed forced against terrorism, 3. Working out a political solution for the Civil War in Yemen, 4. Reducing Iran’s influence in Syria, 5. Coordinating the capabilities and the capacities of US regional allies within the framework of regional security and 6. Establishing institutions or organizations to negotiate with Iran about its demands and its behaviours in the region.
In the Senate hearing on April 4 in the Committee on Financial Services of the House of Representatives, there were experts such as Behnam Taleblu and Dr. Emanuele Ottolenghi, who both called for designating Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. Taleblu focused more on the reduction of Iran’s’ non-nuclear threats against US interests and enumerated these threats as the development of missile program, supporting terrorism, de-stabilizing the region, and finally illegitimate financial activities. He suggested that it is possible to force Iran to abandon some if it policies simply by warning it. For example, he pointed out that after the ‘serious warning’ sent by Michael Flynn in 2017, Iran has not yet tested any missile. Emanuele Ottolenghi also pointed out the need for imposing sanctions on Iranian airlines such as Iran Air and Mahan Air on the grounds that these airlines transfer arms and weaponry to Syria. It is necessary to note that a similar bill is now being discussed separately in the Senate and the House of Representatives which is expected to be proposed soon. Another significant suggestion made by Ottolenghi to the representatives was that sanctions must be imposed on Abadan Refinery as it supplies fuel to the Iranian airlines carrying arms and weaponry to Syria. This could have grave consequences for the Iranian petrochemical industry. In another session titled “Assessment of Nuclear Deal with Iran”, held on April 6 by the “Committee on Government Reform and Oversight” of the House of Representatives, David Albright and other speakers talked about the need for the “exact and meticulous” implementation of JCPOA.
At the level of US administration and the White House, the same positions taken by the Congress and Think-tanks are pursued. Unlike the Obama administration, the Trump administration resorts to both economic sanctions and military threat against Iran. According to the new US administration, tough sanctions and tangible threat could lead to Iran’s behavioral change and even to regime change. On the one hand, in spite of Trump’s initial position, the US government announced that it would comply with the nuclear deal and that it would enforce it in the toughest possible way. In addition, in a formal letter to the Congress, Tillerson announced that Iran had fully complied with JCPOA. On the other hand, it still imposes new sanctions against Iran. This is the violation of Article 29 in JCPOA, sating that “the Europe and the US must avoid adopting policies which prevent from the development of normal commercial and economic relationships”. The White House policy is also bringing back sanctions for non-nuclear reasons such as Iran’s missile program, support for terrorism and human rights.
Some media reports such Washingtonpost, considered Tillerson’s letter to the Congress as the continuation of suspension of sanctions against Iran. However, consistent with the “Act 2015 about reassessment of the nuclear deal”, the US administration must report to the Congress about the compliance of Iran with JCPOA. Tillerson’s letter was the result of this requirement. However, the US government has a commitment to lift nuclear sanctions against Iran. This commitment is left to the discretion of the US president and must be renewed every 120 days. The last renewal took place on January 19th, which was the last working day of the Obama administration. The next date is on Ordibehesht 29th (the day of presidential election in Iran) and given the time lag between Iran and the US, this is late at night in the US and the US president must make a decision. The US intentionally opted for this date so that the decision to be made would not have any negative effect on the presidential election in Iran and possible victory of the candidate they are favoring less. This is because one month before, in a letter to the Congress, John Kerry had informed the Congress of the suspension of the nuclear sanctions. Therefore, there was no need for renewal for a time period of less than a month. In addition, in Tillerson’s letter to the Congress, for the first time, the new US administration formally announced that Iran had complied with all its obligations in JCPOA. However, Steven Mnuchin, the secretary of US Treasury, announced that the US intends to impose more sanctions on Iran and that these sanctions are not related to Iran’s nuclear program. In the most recent action, the White House has imposed sanctions against 30 individuals or foreign companies for transferring sensitive technology to Iran for Iran’s missile program or because of the violation of the restrictions about exports to Iran, North Korea and Syria. In addition, the Department of Treasury has said in a statement that Tehran Prison Organization and Sohrab Soleimani, a senior authority in Prison Organization have been added to the blacklist of sanctions. Of course, it seems that the US defends parts of JCPOA which are in its interests. For instance, the US Reserve Department has adopted no deterring action to stop the sale of Boeing airplanes to Iran. It has even authorized the sale of these airplanes. This is because the sale of 180 Boeing and Airbus airplanes to Iran would create several thousand job opportunities in the US. John McCain, one of the Congressional leaders, has also pointed out that the Iranian Aseman Airline’s deal to buy 30 Boeing airplanes is quite legal.
American security agencies are looking for trouble-making for Iran’s presence in the region and continue to spread Iranophobia in the region. In line with Iranophobia in the region, Mike Pompeo, head of the CIA, has claimed that Shiite crescent is still expanding in the region and this is against the interests of the US. Given Pompeo’s previous statements about the need for collecting extensive information about Iran, it seems that this organization has in place extensive programs to make the election atmosphere in Iran insecure. This is because in the directive issued against Iran by MKO to its forces, MKO has set as its top priority making the presidential election in Iran insecure and street fighting. It seems that John McCain’s meeting, as the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, with Maryam Rajavi, leader of the MKO, has been done as a support for the MKO programs against Iran. The US Defense Minister’s visit to the region and his meeting with the authorities of Saudi Arabia and Israel also have been carried out with the aim of keeping Iran in the focus of attention. Generally speaking, three players in US policy making against Iran, accentuating the need for taking serious action against this country have to a consensus and each is trying to play its own role.
As mentioned above, in intellectual and decision-making circles in the US, they have reached the consensus that by containing Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran, it is possible to be optimistic about containing Iran’s behavior in the region. Therefore, they are vigorously looking for containment and weakening of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In fact, they are planning to undermine Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s power in terms of both software and hardware. The solution lies in imposing tougher sanctions against Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and designating it as a terrorist organization. Therefore, one should expect this to happen following the presidential election in Iran.