Why Iran's nuclear program is back on US agenda

Overwhelming votes in Congress to extend the Iran Sanctions Act, and indications Trump's cabinet will include several foes of the Iran nuclear deal, signal it could be a burning issue once again.

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
Three days after the US election, Iran's Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said President-elect Donald Trump should apologize to the Iranian people for calling them terrorists.

One of the major aims of the nuclear deal the US and other world powers signed with Iran last year was to eliminate the sharp confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program and to stall what at times appeared to be a march to another military conflict in the Middle East.

With Iran and its nuclear efforts having largely fallen off diplomatic agendas, that aspect of a deal that exchanged verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear program for significant sanctions relief for Tehran would seem a success.

But now, after a year of calm, signs are mounting that that thorny international challenge is primed to come roaring back to the world stage in the early months of next year.

On Thursday the Senate voted overwhelmingly to renew existing, non-nuclear US sanctions on Iran for another decade – an expected move that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently declared would not go unanswered by Iran. Some Iranian officials have said Iran might ramp up uranium enrichment in response.

The Senate action – the vote was 99 to 0 – portends an expected return to congressional activism on Iran in the next Congress. It follows a 419-1 vote last month in the House of Representatives to extend the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA).

Leaders from both parties have said they plan to move next year to expand existing sanctions to target Iran over activities ranging from ballistic-missile testing and Persian Gulf actions to a growing cyberattack effort.

Add to the equation the arrival in Washington in January of the Trump administration – and then in Iran the rising political heat of a presidential campaign and election in May – and there’s little doubt about Iran’s imminent return to the international agenda, some regional experts say.

President-elect Donald Trump is filling his cabinet with harsh critics both of the Iran deal and of President Obama's efforts to engage diplomatically with the longtime US adversary. On Thursday, leaks from the president-elect's transition team pointed to the selection of retired Marine Gen. James Mattis as secretary of defense.

General Mattis has advocated a much tougher US response to Iranian provocations – including harassment of US naval vessels in the Persian Gulf – and earlier this year singled out Iran as "the most enduring threat to peace and stability in the Middle East."

“I don’t think there’s much question about Iran’s return to the front pages in the months ahead,” says Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an expert on Iran sanctions. “Iran is almost certainly going to test President Trump early on in his administration.… The instruments of American coercion against Iran’s malign activities are about to be reactivated – and that will make this a burning issue once again.”

'Height of folly'

At the same time, almost no one expects Mr. Trump to enter the White House Jan. 20 and set off an international crisis by immediately pulling the US out of the Iran nuclear deal – despite his threats early in the presidential campaign to “tear up” the international agreement. No mention was made of Iran or the nuclear deal in Trump’s agenda for his first 100 days in office, experts note.

And many foreign-policy professionals in Washington – including some the incoming president has been consulting – have been advising against walking away from the deal.

“I think it would be the height of folly if the next administration were to tear up that [nuclear] agreement,” CIA Director John Brennan recently told the BBC. Walking away from an agreement that includes not just Iran but America’s European allies plus the Russians and the Chinese would only alienate the US from the international community, he said.

Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a rumored candidate for secretary of state under Trump, is also advising against backing out of a deal that he voted against. “I think the beginning point is for us to cause them [the Iranians] to strictly adhere to [the agreement],” Senator Corker told MSNBC recently. “What we have to remember is, we have to keep the Europeans and others with us in the process,” he added.

Mr. Dubowitz says Trump could move in several directions on Iran, but he guesses that a likely scenario is one where the new administration sticks with the deal but is tougher about enforcing it – regardless of how Iran might respond.

“Under this option the US would continue to adhere to the deal – but it would push to really enforce it and stand up to Iran’s incremental cheating and challenging, cheating and challenging,” he says. “That’s how Iran operates in regards to all of its international activity, but that may be something the new administration will want to confront.”

An emboldened Iran

Most members of Congress from both major parties differentiate between tearing up the nuclear deal and giving Iran a pass on other activities – something even some Democrats feel the Obama administration has done in the interest of preserving the nuclear accord.

Indeed, the lopsided congressional votes on the Iran Sanctions Act extension reflect growing concern not only that Iran may be violating the limits placed on its nuclear activities by the nuclear deal, but that an Iran emboldened by the international accord is stepping up destabilizing actions in the Middle East, notably in Syria and Yemen.

Congressional leaders say the ISA is separate from the nuclear deal and that renewal would simply extend a tool the US has for targeting Iranian activities, including sponsorship of terrorism. Even Democrats who supported the nuclear deal from the outset say renewing the sanctions legislation is a tool to keep Iran mindful of the consequences of its actions.

“Iran has to know that the threat of snap-back sanctions is alive and well,” Sen. Chris Coons (D) of Delaware told reporters Thursday as he explained his support for extending the sanctions act.

The Obama administration has said extension of the ISA is unnecessary given the provision for a “snap-back” of sanctions within the nuclear deal, and that passage would only complicate relations with Iran. But Mr. Obama has not threatened to veto the bill and seems unlikely to – given an almost certain successful override vote.

Death by 1,000 cuts

Nuclear experts who supported the Iran nuclear deal say extension of the ISA is not in itself a problem, but they worry that it might be used to expand sanctions in ways that might violate the accord or prompt Iran to take actions that lead to a downward spiral for the landmark agreement.

“The Iran Sanctions Act is not a violation of the agreement,” says Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association in Washington. What could undermine the agreement, she adds, are new sanctions – including those some in Congress are talking about imposing next year – that reach beyond the ISA.

Some of Trump’s advisers have spoken recently of dumping the nuclear deal, but Ms. Davenport says that’s not the most likely scenario. “If the US walks away from the deal, it walks away alone,” she says, “and I think people understand that.”

What worries her more is that the Trump administration will take actions that provoke a response from Iran – setting in motion a series of tit-for-tat moves and countermoves that ultimately gut the deal.

“More than an outright walking away [from the deal], I think the greater threat under a Trump administration will be a ‘death-by-1,000-paper-cuts’ scenario,” she says.

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