TEHRAN, Iran — The US Senate on June 15 overwhelmingly passed a bill to impose new sanctions against Iran. The Countering Iran's Destabilizing Activities Act targets Iran's ballistic missile program, its alleged support for terrorism and its human rights violations. It also includes new sanctions against Russia. The House of Representatives has found that the Senate bill violates a constitutional requirement that any bill that raises revenue for the government must commence in the House, thus stalling its finalization.
While US officials claim that the Senate bill complies with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), there are disagreements between Iranian officials and scholars in the interpretation of the move and its impact on the nuclear deal. At the very least, a majority agree that the new sanctions hurt the spirit of the JCPOA.
Mentioning the Senate bill, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, the chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, declared on June 23 that if implemented, the new sanctions would defy both the letter and the spirit of the JCPOA. Bagheri further said that these sanctions once again show the United States’ persistence in its enmity toward Iran and that no one should think that the United States’ behavior can change.
Noting the complexity of the issue and the aggregation of the sanctions against Iran and Russia in one bill, Hamid Baeidinejad, Iran's ambassador to the UK and former nuclear negotiator, wrote in a Telegram post on June 17, "The bill has been approved by the Senate, but has yet to pass two more hurdles before becoming law. … So it is important that the [Iranian] establishment's authorities avoid acting impulsively in expressing an official position."
Nasser Hadian, a prominent professor of international relations at the University of Tehran, told Al-Monitor that he does not believe that the new sanctions would explicitly violate the nuclear deal, though they defy the intent of the JCPOA. Hadian believes there is coordination and agreement between the United States and the EU in the escalation of pressure on Iran over its missile program, while avoiding explicit violation of the nuclear deal.
Noting the reinvigorated ties between the Donald Trump administration and Iran's regional rivals, Hadian further underlined the role of regional lobbies, including those of Saudi Arabia and Israel, in pushing for the new US sanctions. In this vein, he told Al-Monitor that there are four scenarios as potential reactions of Iran. "The first scenario is interpreting the sanctions as a clear violation of the JCPOA and therefore [triggering an] end to adherence to it by Iran. The second one is a decrease in Iran's adherence to its commitments [under the deal]. The third one is continuation of Iran's adherence to the JCPOA, as before, because the other parties — except for the US — act in compliance with their commitments. The fourth scenario is Iran acting beyond its commitments in order to prove its peaceful intentions and isolating the US." To this end, Hadian suggested that Iran should use both its formal diplomatic channels as well as backchannel diplomacy to reach out to China, Russia and European countries in a bid to convince them to adhere to the nuclear deal.
Mohammad Jamshidi, a professor of international relations at the University of Tehran, told Al-Monitor that the bill violates not only the letter and spirit of the JCPOA but also UN Security Council Resolution 2231. He said the sanctions contravene Articles 26-29 of the JCPOA, noting that "according to Article 29, the US is committed to refrain from any policy intended to affect ‘the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran.’”
Jamshidi added that the new US sanctions would violate Resolution 2231 in three ways. In his telling, the sanctions would perpetuate penalties over Iran's activities related to ballistic missiles, while Resolution 2231 states that all restrictions related to the latter should only apply for eight years after the JCPOA’s “Adoption Day.” Second, the bill will generalize sanctions against Iran's ballistic missile program, disregarding the types and capabilities of the missiles, while paragraph three of Annex B of Resolution 2231 calls upon Iran not to undertake any activity specifically related to ballistic missiles "designed" to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons. Third, the bill targets all arms transfers to Iran for an unlimited time, whereas paragraph five of Annex B of Resolution 2231 states that the restrictions on arms-related transfers shall apply only for five years after the JCPOA’s “Adoption Day.”
There is also the question of whether the new sanctions may influence Iran's regional policies. To this end, Jamshidi told Al-Monitor, "One of the main purposes of this bill is to weaken Iran's regional power and force it to change its regional policy. The US sees the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] beyond a military agency and tries to weaken Iran's economy by approving sanctions against it and all the banks that provide financial services to it under the pretext that IRGC supports terrorism. But these efforts will backfire and strengthen Iran's regional policy, especially considering the security condition of the Middle East.”
In this vein, Jamshidi charged the United States with being the party responsible for failing the nuclear deal — though he noted that this isn’t just the result of the Trump administration's actions, but that the sanctions would have been approved even if Hillary Clinton had been elected president. Pointing to changing political dynamics within Washington, Jamshidi said, “It is a sign of a historical change in redefining the role of the Congress in US foreign policy and diminishing the power of the administration in shaping US foreign policy."
The extensive support of Iranian officials for the recent ballistic missile attack against Islamic State targets in northeastern Syria also shows the internal consensus about the necessity of sustaining and strengthening Iran's ballistic missile capabilities and its role in guaranteeing Iranian national security in a turbulent Middle East.
On June 11, parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani asked parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission to urgently formalize a new bill to retaliate against the Senate move. Seyed Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, the spokesman for the commission, said on June 25 that the commission is preparing a comprehensive bill to counteract the new non-nuclear sanctions. Kazem Jalali, the head of the Iranian parliament’s Research Center, said on June 28, "The Bill Against Adventurist and Terrorist Activities in the Region addresses such issues as US support for terrorism and violation of human rights, and Iran's countering of US economic sanctions,” adding that it also envisages “support for Iran’s Armed Forces and Iranians based in the US."