Hill Update on Iran Policy

by Lara Friedman

It is now clear (and it was indeed predictable/predicted) that 2016 will see a continued and even redoubled campaign of pressure on Iran from Congress. For some members of Congress, this campaign will genuinely be about legitimate areas of U.S. concern, including human rights and support for terror.  For many others, the campaign will be about exploiting any and all pretexts (including legitimate areas of concern) to try to undermine the JCPOA and return U.S. policy to the pre-JPOA-era – an era characterized by a zero-sum approach that inevitably boiled down to only military options and regime change fantasies. For some discussion in the media and online about this coming battle, see: Congress Sets Its Sights on Iran (Tyler Cullis writing in SanctionsLaw,com, 12/22); Congress braces for round two of Iran fight (The Hill, 12/27); New Iran sanctions fight looms in 2016 (Fox News, 12/28). Iran Deal Hits a Milestone as Challenges Mount (John Hudson writing in ForeignPolicy.com, 12/29).

Below is a summary of some of the battles immediately looming when Congress returns in 2016, based on initiatives that have already appeared.

New Iran Sanctions Under the Guise of New Visa Waiver Rules

This battle is already underway, and is by no means over. As discussed in the last edition of the Round-Up, the “Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act of 2015” was adopted as part of the Consolidated Approps bill, HR 2029. The legislation was passed by Congress ostensibly to address concerns about terrorism related to ISIS and al Qaeda. However, the legislation was written (it appears deliberately) to include Iran, in effect treating anyone who travels to Iran as a security risk. For travelers who hold passports that would normally permit them to travel to the U.S. without visas (as part of the Visa Waiver Program), the legislation strips them of this privilege if they have traveled to Iran. Moreover, since visa rules are nearly always based on reciprocity (other countries do unto our citizens as the U.S. does unto theirs), the new rules by extension turn Americans who travel to Iran into second-class citizens for purposes of travel abroad.

It must be emphasized that in all the years of U.S.-Iran tensions, Congress has NEVER BEFORE tried to limit the Visa Waiver Program in this manner. Only now, with the advent of the JCPOA era, is Congress seeking to subvert new security concerns (unrelated to Iran) to demonize travel to Iran, penalize those who engage in such travel, and effectively discourage travel to and relations with Iran.  Iranian officials have made clear that they view these unprecedented new travel rules as a new form of Iran sanctions (which, effectively, they are), intended to have a chilling effect on post-JCPOA relations between Iran and the world (which, effectively, they likely would), and a violation of the JCPOA.

The legislation, as adopted in HR 2029, includes authority for the State Department to waive the new rules, and Kerry has assured the Iranian foreign minister that the U.S. is committed to implementing the JCPOA and will not permit the new visa rules to block it. As a result, anti-JCPOA members of Congress – like the ones who sent the letters to Secretary Kerry discussed in Section 1, above (McCarthy et al letter to Secretaries Kerry and Johnson, Dold et al letter to Kerry, Pompeo letter to Kerry – are not happy. Making this clear – and making clear that what is in effect the imposition of a new Iran-related sanction was indeed deliberate – McCaul (R-TX) delivered this angry statement on 12/22:

“This Administration’s continued capitulation to Iran continues to reach new lows. In a desperate attempt to appease the regime in Tehran, the Secretary of State says he can bypass requirements in a law the President himself signed only days ago. But our government does not work like the Iranian regime, and the Secretary of State cannot throw the Constitution out the window.  This legislation was passed by a bipartisan majority in Congress, and it does not — and never was intended to — give the Administration blanket authority to exempt entire countries from new security measures we put in place to keep our country safe. Iran is the world’s largest state sponsor of Islamist terrorism, and our message to them is clear: as long as you fuel networks of terror, individuals connected to your country will not be allowed to enter ours without closer scrutiny.”

For more reading on this, see: Iran threatens response to new U.S. visa restrictions (Reuters 12/28); US Visa Restrictions Blatant Violation of JCPOA: Iranian Diplomat (TasnimNews 12/28); Iranian-American Organizations Urge President Obama to Waive Discriminatory Visa Language (NIAC, 12/23); Iran says new US visa law goes against nuclear deal (AFP 12/20); Will US Visa Waiver Bill Undermine JCPOA and Iran’s Economy? (LobeLog 12/15, Shireen Hunter).

Iran Oversight – New Legislation & Hearings

In 2016, members of Congress will be seeking to use their authority to impose oversight – through both legislation and in hearings – over the JCPOA and other issues related to Iran. It remains to be seen to what extent this is serious, legitimate oversight and to what extent it is a pretext for undermining the JCPOA.  As reported previously in the Round-Up, on 10/1 Senator Cardin (D-MD) and 8 Democratic cosponsors introduced S.2119, A bill to provide for greater congressional oversight of Iran’s nuclear program, and for other purposes.” Cardin’s press release touting introduction of the bill is here. For excellent and comprehensive reporting/analysis/background on this bill, see here.

Subsequently, on 12/3, SFRC Chairman Corker (R-TN) and Ranking Member Cardin (D-MD) sent a letter to President Obama outlining their plans for ongoing oversight of the JCPOA. The letter states that the Committee will implement “a rigorous program to ensure effective Congressional monitoring and oversight of this agreement as well as its regional and nonproliferation implications.” The letter details plans for numerous hearings and briefings that will be part of this program of oversight and at which Administration officials will be expected to testify (press release here). The first of these oversight hearings was held 12/17 (details in Section 4, below). The tone of the hearing was clear from Corker’s opening statement, entitled in a press release, “Corker Says Failure to Impose Consequences for Iran’s Ballistic Missile Violations Sets Dangerous Precedent for Enforcement of Nuclear Deal.”

Targeting Iran over Ballistic Missile Tests

Recent ballistic missile tests by Iran (in October and again in early December) appear to violate UN Security Council resolutions; however, they do not violate the JCPOA. For many members of Congress, this appears to be a distinction without a difference. In recent weeks a chorus of voices in Congress, from both sides of the aisle, has demanded a U.S. response to Iranian ballistic missile tests. It remains to be seen if Congress will move from such calls for action to efforts to legislate a U.S. response.


Cardin et al letter to Obama: On 12/17, Sen. Cardin (D-MD) let a letter to President Obama, signed by 20 fellow Democratic senators, expressing the senators’ deep concern over “Iran’s continued violations of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1929 by testing a second ballistic missile on November 21, 2015…If there are no consequences for this violation, Iran’s leaders will certainly also question the willingness of the international community to respond to violations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and UN Security Council Resolution 2231.”

Yoho et al letter to Obama: On 12/17, Rep. Yoho (R-FL) led a letter to President Obama, signed by more than 100 fellow House members, urging that “at the very least, further sanctions relief should be postponed until the U.N. undertakes a rigorous investigation of the [missile] launches and takes appropriate action. Iran must be held accountable for their [sic] behavior and they [sic] must not be rewarded.” In his statement on the release of the letter, Yoho threatened, “If President Obama will not take the necessary steps to hold Iran accountable, I, along with the support of my colleagues in the House and on the Foreign Affairs Committee, will make sure he does…”

Ayotte et al letter to Obama: On 12/16, Sen. Ayotte (R-NH) led a letter, signed by 35 other senators asserting that “it is a mistake to treat Iran’s ballistic missile program as separate from Iran’s nuclear program. Iran is developing ICBM capabilities for the sole purpose of enabling delivery of a nuclear weapon to the United States.” The letter suggests that the Obama Administration “is failing to respond to Iran’s dangerous and destabilizing actions out of an eagerness to see the Iran deal go forward.” The letter urges President Obama “not lift sanctions on Iran that would provide billions of dollars in economic relief.”

Deutch-Kennedy letter to Obama: On 12/8, Reps. Deutch (D-FL) and Kennedy (D-MA) sent a letter to President Obama urging him to hold Iran accountable for violating United Nations Security Council Resolutions that prohibit ballistic missile testing.

Ayotte-Kirk letter to Obama: On 12/8, Sens. Ayotte (R-NH) and Kirk (R-IL) sent a letter to President Obama to ask how the administration plans to respond to Iran’s most recent ballistic missile test.

Senate Dems letter: On 10/21, Senators Cardin (D-MD), Schumer (D-NY), Blumenthal (D-CT), Bennet (D-CO), Coons (D-DE), Shaheen (D-NH), Warner (D-VA), Markey (D-MA), Wyden (D-OR), Murphy (D-CT), and Booker (D-NJ) sent a letter to Secretary Kerry expressing profound concern about the October 11th Iranian ballistic missile test.  The letter concludes by stating: “We believe calibrated pressure on Iran is appropriate due to its clear non-compliance with UNSCR 1929 and to deter future violations.”

Ayotte-Kirk letter: On 10/14 Senators Ayotte (R-NH) and Kirk (R-IL) sent a letter to President Obama regarding the Iranian ballistic missile test.

Corker et al letter: On 10/14, Senators Corker (R-TN), Johnson (R-WI), Gardner (R-CO), Kaine (D-VA), Flake (R-AZ), Barrasso (R-WY), Perdue (R-GA), and Isakson (R-GA) sent a letter to Secretary Kerry asking him to clarify if the Iranian ballistic missile test violate the international ban.

Selected Statements

Sullivan (R-AK) 12/17: Arguing that Iran is violating the “spirit and intent” of the JCPOA and urging President Obama not to lift sanctions

Donnelly (D-IN) 12/17: “…The administration has made clear that the United States reserves the right under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to take action through our sanctions tools in response to Iran’s support for terrorism, its human rights abuses, its illegal arms trafficking, and its ballistic missile program. It is time to back up those words with decisive and specific action.”

Thompson (R-PA) 12/17: “…recent Iranian ballistic missile tests in direct violation of sanctions by the United Nations show that this regime cannot be trusted… I urge the President to abandon the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in order to make sure not $1 flows into the coffers of this terrorist regime.”

Royce (R-CA) 12/23: Obama Admin Must Stop Appeasing Iran

Shimkus (R-IL) 12/21: Obama foolish to trust Iran – Ballistic missile tests & purchase of Russian surface-to-air weapons violate the President’s own deal

Corker (R-TN) 10/28: Corker Presses State Department on U.S. Sanctions Against Iran for Violation of UN Ballistic Missile Test Ban

Lamborn (R-CO) 10/16: Accusing Iran of violating international law and once again opposing the JCPOA

Perdue (R-GA) 10/15: Iran’s Already Breaking Rules

Poliquin (R-ME) 10/15: Iran Developing and Test-Firing Long-Range Ballistic Missiles

Royce (D-CA) 10/14: Chairman Royce Demands Aggressive Obama Administration Response to Iranian Missile Test

Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) 10/14: White House Must Hold Iran Accountable for Ballistic Missile Test, Call for Emergency Security Council Session, Says Ros-Lehtinen

McCain (R-AZ) 10/12: Statement on “failed administration policy toward Iran

New Iran Sanctions (in the Guise of Extending Old Ones)

Back in June 2015, Sens. Kirk (R-IL) and Menendez (D-NJ) – from the outset two of the most active and vociferous opponents of diplomacy with Iran, as well as of the JPOA and eventually the JCPOA – introduced S. 1682,A bill to extend the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996 and to require the Secretary of the Treasury to report on the use by Iran of funds made available through sanctions relief.” Kirk’s press release touting introduction of the bill – a bill that would extend sanctions on Iran until at least 2026 – is here. At the time, it was clear that the real purpose of the bill was to scuttle any agreement with Iran, and the bill stalled in committee.

Now, it appears that the Senate may be considering moving ahead with the legislation, right on time to coincide with the JCPOA’s “implementation day.” Whether or not Iran would consider extension of the sanctions a violation of the JCPOA is not clear. That said, it should be noted that the existing sanctions legislation does not expire until December 2016 – meaning that it is by no means imperative that Congress take action at this time. It is also worth noting that if Iran violates the JCPOA, there would be nothing preventing Congress from enacting new sanctions quickly.  The idea that “snap back” or a credible threat of “snap back” requires actions like extending the existing sanctions for another 10 years – sanctions that were crafted in the pre-JCPOA era, when sanctions were the ONLY tool of U.S. policy vis-à-vis Iran – makes no sense at all.

Blocking Sanctions Relief with Demands for More Information.

Since the JCPOA was adopted, some members of Congress have doggedly insisted that the legally mandated congressional oversight period of the agreement has not yet started, since the Obama Administration has not produced and given to Congress “side agreements” between Iran and the IAEA. These members reject the argument that agreements between the IAEA and Iran are not part of the JCPOA. They also reject the argument that agreements between the IAEA and individual countries are confidential, and must be confidential in order for the IAEA to carry out its mandate.  These members of Congress have argued their case vociferously (as documented in previous round-ups), but to their frustration the JCPOA marches forward toward implementation (including with Iran shipping stocks of low-enriched uranium to Russia). But these opponents remain undeterred.

On 12/18, Sen. Ayotte (R-NH) and 10 GOP cosponsors introduced S. 2429: Introduced 12/18 by “To require a report on the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program and to prohibit the provision of sanctions relief to Iran until Iran has verifiably ended all military dimensions of its nuclear program, and for other purposes.

In addition, on 12/3, Rep. Zinke (R-MT) and 30 cosponsors, introduced H. Res. 553,Urging the President and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to submit to Congress the text of all side agreements entered into between the IAEA and Iran with respect to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.” The resolution urges that Congressional approval of additional funding for the IAEA (vital for overseeing implementation of the JCPOA and ensuring that Iran does not cheat),  “the President and the IAEA submit to Congress the text of all side agreements entered into between the IAEA and Iran with respect to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.”

In addition, on 12/16, Rep. King (R-IA) offered an amendment to the FY16 Omnibus Appropriations bill (it was not considered), that sought to “defund the Iran deal.” The amendment state that “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to fund the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding Iran and submitted to the Congress on July 19, 2015, or any side deals to the nuclear agreement (including all related materials and annexes) between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran.” (King’s press release is here)

Targeting Iran: IRGC & Other Angles.

Opponents of the JCPOA, along with some members who are genuinely concerned by specific issues related to the Iranian government’s behavior, are looking for various angles, other than the nuclear program, to squeeze Iran. A favorite angle that has emerged is going after the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). A number of different pieces of legislation have already be introduced focused on the IRGC, and using concerns about the IRGC as a pretext for blocking lifting of sanctions, as required under the JCPOA. These include:

  1. HR 4312 (introduced 12/18 by Sherman (D-CA) and 5 cosponsors, “To provide for more effective sanctions against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps or any of its officials, agents, or affiliates to counter support for international terrorism and assistance to the Assad regime in Syria,”)
  1. HR 4258 (introduced 12/15 by Roskam (R-IL) and 3 GOP cosponsors, “To impose sanctions against any entity with respect to which Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps owns, directly or indirectly, a 20 percent or greater interest in the entity, and for other purposes
  2. HR 4257 (introduced 12/15 by Nunes (R-CA) and 27 all-GOP cosponsors, To protect the American and Iranian peoples as well as the global economy from Iran’s systematic abjuration of international legal standards on human and civil rights, its support for international terrorism, and the corrosive economic malfeasance of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, and for other purposes
  3. HR 3646 and S. 2094 (introduced 9/29 in the House by McCaul (R-TX) and 14 GOP cosponsors, and in the Senate by Cruz (R-TX) and no cosponsors, the “IRGC Terrorist Designation Act.”
  4. HR 3662 (introduced 10/1 by Russell (R-OK) and 20 cosponsors, “To enhance congressional oversight over the administration of sanctions against certain Iranian terrorism financiers, and for other purposes.”

Targeting Iran: Victims of terrorism.

Congress has long sought to hold Iran accountable for terrorism against American citizens, including those Americans taken hostage in the U.S. embassy (and their families).  In this vein, HR 3457 and S. 2086: The “Justice for Victims of Iranian Terrorism Act,” was introduced in the House 9/9 by Meehan (R-PA) and picked up and introduced in the Senate 9/28 by Toomey (R-PA). These bills seek to prevent Iran sanctions being lifted (under the JCPOA) until Iran makes good on outstanding judgments in the cases of U.S. victims of Iranian-backed terror.

On 9/30, the White House issued a Statement of Policy strongly opposing HR 3457 (and by extension, S. 2086 or anything else like it), noting that the bill would prevent the U.S. from fulfilling its commitments under the JCPOA. The SAP states clearly that the President will veto the bill if it is passed by Congress. On 10/1, the House nonetheless voted to suspend the rules and passed HR 3457 (which by that point had 118 cosponsors, all Republicans) by a vote of 251-173 (all Republicans voted in favor; 10 Democrats voted in favor and 173 voted against). The transcript of the House floor debate is here. For an interesting take, see this article in Roll Call by Sara Shourd, who was held prisoner in Iran: Iran Terrorism Bill Won’t Help U.S. Hostages.

Supporting/Encouraging U.S. States to Impose/Maintain Sanctions on Iran.  

December 1 saw the introduction of H. Con. Res. 100 and S. Con. Res.26 (by Roskam (R-IL) and 5 cosponsors in the House, and Kirk (R-IL) and 2 cosponsors in the Senate), “Expressing the sense of the Congress regarding the right of States and local governments to maintain economic sanctions against Iran.” Roskam press release is here. Kirk press release is here.

Photo: Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX)

This article is excerpted with permission from the Legislative Round-Up published by Americans for Peace Now.

Lara Friedman

Lara Friedman is the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP). With more than 25 years working in the Middle East foreign policy arena, Lara is a leading authority on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, with particular expertise on the Israeli-Arab conflict, Israeli settlements, Jerusalem, and the role of the U.S. Congress. She is published widely in the U.S. and international press and is regularly consulted by members of Congress and their staffs, by Washington-based diplomats, by policy-makers in capitals around the world, and by journalists in the U.S. and abroad. In addition to her work at FMEP, Lara is a non-resident fellow at the U.S./Middle East Project (USMEP). Prior to joining FMEP, Lara was the director of policy and government relations at Americans for Peace Now, and before that she was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer, serving in Jerusalem, Washington, Tunis and Beirut. She holds a B.A. from the University of Arizona and a Master’s degree from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service; in addition to English, Lara speaks French, Arabic, Spanish, (weak) Italian, and muddles through in Hebrew.



  1. Re: For some members of Congress, this campaign will genuinely be about legitimate areas of U.S. concern, including human rights and support for terror.

    Oh come on! What nonsense and hypocrisy! The US isn’t concerned in the slightest with human rights except as a tool of propaganda and as a sop for a clueless American public. The US is blatantly–with Israel–the most destabilizing and murderous country on earth. It is the terrorist nation, the rogue nation, par excellence.

  2. Iran has survived 4,750 years before America was formed! It has also survived the most severe of iligal sanctions imposed by America on Iranian people for the last 35 years! The Iranians will probably outlive many light countries and iligal states for many more centuries to come! So to the US legislative body “get over it”! As in the case of North Korea the US legislative body has already proven that it can not do a damn thing and neither can do anything about Iran!

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