Having passed 98-2 in the Senate and 419-3 in the House, H.R. 3364—a new bill that imposes sanctions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea—is almost universally well-liked. This bill, signed into law by President Donald Trump, represents a chance for the United States to show that it will stand up to Vladimir Putin, regardless of his affinity for the American president. And that is exactly how this bill has been portrayed: it finds common ground in an increasingly divided America. However, the bill is much more than that: by including sanctions on Iran, it makes a mockery of the diplomatic process behind the Iran nuclear deal, and it is a clear show of hypocrisy on the part of the Democrats.
The significance of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (or JCPOA, also known as the Iran deal) should not be underestimated. The deal’s practical benefits are obvious: Iran has halted its nuclear program and can now benefit from the global economy. But apart from this, these negotiations marked the first time that post-revolutionary Iran and the United States have chosen diplomacy over proxy wars and insults. And in this case, diplomacy has worked: Iran, among other things, has lowered its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 97 percent and has removed two-thirds of its centrifuges. For Americans concerned about Iranian nuclear proliferation, this is a clear victory.
Though the benefits of the deal are considerable, hardline politicians in both the United States and Iran make a political living by villainizing the other side. Just weeks ago, Rep. Edward Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee and the author of H.R. 3364, bashed the deal, claiming that Iran was still “working towards a nuclear bomb.” President Trump has also made clear his desire to end the JCPOA. Thus, it’s understandable why these Republicans would want to introduce and support legislation to damage the deal. Yet it’s shocking that most Democrats aren’t even questioning it, given that President Obama and other Democrats saw a constructive relationship with Iran as an important objective of the nuclear deal.
Legally, the new sanctions do not violate the text of the nuclear deal. However, H.R. 3364 states that sanctions will be imposed on anyone who “knowingly engages in any activity that materially contributes to the activities of the Government of Iran with respect to its ballistic missile program.” It is likely that many Iranian scientists, military officials, and military-aligned firms, who did aid Iran’s nuclear program, are working to help Iran develop its missiles. Thus, though H.R. 3364 does not target the majority of those whom the deal helped (such as financial and shipping institutions), it nonetheless sanctions many of the same Iranians who benefited from the JCPOA. By effectively restoring many of the same sanctions that it promised to lift under the JCPOA, the US has reneged on its part of the bargain.
The American government’s main justification for imposing new sanctions on Iran is its continued missile tests. But these missiles are not capable of carrying nuclear warheads, meaning that Iran has not violated the JCPOA or any other bilateral agreement with the United States.
The reason that Democrats unwaveringly supported H.R. 3364 is its imposition of sanctions on Russia, as one of Democrats’ primary concerns is Russian interference in the US election. This is a valid concern. But failing to challenge Royce on sanctions against Iran that violate the spirit of the nuclear deal—and blindly voting for such a bill—is irresponsible. Democrats who praised the nuclear deal, and the diplomatic process behind it, seem to have voted for this bill on the basis that it holds Russia accountable for election interference. At the very least, they should have criticized the parts of the bill that sanction Iran. Not only will the bill’s other sections tarnish one of President Obama’s crowning achievements, but they also contradict what Democrats said throughout nuclear negotiations—that they want a constructive relationship with Iran. Democrats are so focused on trying to move on Russia that they’re disregarding one of their own most impressive foreign policy achievements.
It’s possible that omitting Iran from the bill would have decreased bipartisan support for the new Russia sanctions. However, congressional Republicans have shown that they are willing to take a stand a stand (albeit not one as strong as Democrats would hope for) against Russia and against Trump. For example, a bipartisan bill that will limit Trump’s ability to fire special counsel Robert Mueller has strong support on Capitol Hill. Additionally, the Republican-controlled Senate has blocked Trump’s ability to make appointments during Congress’s recess—a sign that it does not trust the President. Republicans seem willing to buck Trump with or without concessions from the Democrats.
This new round of sanctions will mean Iranian retaliation. But that shouldn’t be what we worry about. After all, the United States has all of the leverage in dealing with Iran. Short of violating its part of the deal and pursuing a nuclear weapon, Iran cannot do anything substantive. What I found terrible about this is that congressional Democrats—the same people who supported John Kerry and Barack Obama’s efforts to negotiate this deal—are now helping congressional Republicans escalate tensions with Iran, putting the deal’s fate in jeopardy. Democrats who supported both the JCPOA and these new sanctions on Iran are now showing that they will compromise on their own values if it means that they can stick it to Trump.
Ashton Hashemipour is the World Section Editor for The Gate. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.
Ashton Hashemipour is a second-year Political Science major interested in international relations and foreign policy. This summer, he interned at Congresswoman Robin Kelly’s district office here in Chicago. On campus, he’s the Director of Publication at EUChicago, a Chair for the Model UN Conference the university hosts, and on the International Policy Program at the Institute of Politics.