Will US Visa Waiver Bill Undermine JCPOA and Iran’s Economy?

by Shireen T. Hunter

Those in Congress and elsewhere who oppose America’s nuclear agreement with Iran have not given up on their efforts to contain Iran and isolate it economically and politically, which has been US policy toward Iran at least since 1991. Before the ink was dry on the Iran nuclear agreement, they began thinking of ways to prevent its full implementation and Iran’s return to the international community.

The attitude of these naysayers is not surprising. From the very beginning they have used Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons as an excuse to bring pressure on it and undermine its economy. For instance, the most punishing sanctions were imposed after 2004, when Iran had already agreed to measures that, unbiased experts agree, would have made the nuclear weapons option impossible to pursue.

The ultimate goal of these “crippling sanctions,” as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put, was to exacerbate Iran’s internal political divisions and dichotomies. By generating severe economic pain, the sanctions were designed to spur domestic discontent, which could lead to political upheaval and, ultimately, a change of regime. By early 2007, in light of its difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States seemed to have given up on the option of going to war against Iran, although it continued to keep the military option on the table. Instead, the United States decided on this strategy of internal destabilization of Iran through a variety of means, including economic sanctions.

Despite claims to the contrary, especially by Iranian authorities, US isolation policy has indeed imposed significant economic, political, and other costs on the country, with economic costs being particularly high. Iran’s flexibility in its talks with the P5+1 nations was at least partly due to these economic pressures. Naturally, therefore, one of Iran’s principal objectives in its negotiations on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was to eliminate the sanctions that had caused so much economic damage. Although Iran will still be subject to significant sanctions under different pretexts, such as violations of human rights, the JCPOA is expected to end all nuclear-related sanctions and thus eliminate major barriers for economic interaction between Iran and the rest of the world. Since the signing of the agreement, Iran has hoped that its economic relations with Europe in particular will expand and the flow of European money and visitors will boost its economy.

Visa Waiver Legislation

Now, suddenly a monkey wrench has been thrown into the works in the form of a congressional resolution that toughens provisions of the US Visa Waiver Program. The resolution, H.R. 158, has already passed the House of Representatives and has been sent to the Senate for its consideration, along with a similar Senate resolution. Given recent events, especially in Paris and San Bernardino, it has been natural for Congress to take a second look at this program, which applies mainly to people living in European countries, in order to provide a further check on those who want to come to the United States and are dual nationals of Syria and Iraq, where the Islamic State bases its activities.

But the proposed changes go far beyond providing an added filter for people with these connections, along with those covered by the program who have travelled to either Syria and Iraq in the past several years. The congressional resolutions have also been written to have a major impact on Iran. If either resolution becomes law, any European businessman or tourist who has travelled to Iran in the last five years—in addition to dual nationals—will face the prospect of long delays in obtaining a visa to visit the United States and might not get a visa at all.

Make no mistake: this is an indirect way of limiting Iran’s future economic relations with Europe. Considering the fact that the Europeans have far greater economic interests in the US than in Iran, the visa issue could become a significant damper on European desires to expand economic relations with Iran once sanctions are eased.

European Response

The Europeans have not missed the point (or the motive behind including Iran in the prospective changes to the US Visa Waiver Program). Their diplomatic representatives in Washington are telling both the administration and Congress that free travel across the Atlantic would suffer significantly. European countries, where visa-free travel for Americans has been the rule for decades, would in turn impose visa restrictions on American travellers.

Furthermore, should this resolution become law, it could endanger the very implementation of the JCPOA. Some Iranian officials have already indicated that such a law would violate the agreement because it stipulates that, following implementation, none of the P5+1 parties should take any action that could impede Iran’s economic and other interaction with the outside world. If that were to happen, Iranian officials would have little choice but to stop implementing some of the JCPOA requirements. The government of President Hassan Rouhani will certainly be under pressure from hardliners to do so. The latter are already unhappy with the report of International Atomic Energy Agency Director Yukiya Amano regarding the previous military dimensions of Iran’s program (PMD). They see the report as equivocal and preserving the West’s option to reopen the issue should the United States in particular want to do so in order to pursue specific policy goals toward Iran and more broadly in the region.

Coming after Amano’s report, the Visa Waiver Program issue will give credence to arguments made by Iranian hardliners that the West, in particular the US, will not honor its commitments under the JCPOA. Lately, the hardliners have been predicting that the nuclear deal will be ultimately ignored in the same way as the Algiers Agreement of 1981, which resolved the American hostage issue. As Iran’s parliamentary elections approach, the hardliners will try to use such arguments to win seats at the expense of the moderates and reformists.

Moreover, should H.R. 158 or the Senate version become law, it will embitter all Iranians, including the regime’s opponents. They will ask why Iran is punished for the terrorist acts committed by the citizens of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, and other Arab/Islamic countries. This will set back any potential US-Iran reconciliation.

Those who have sponsored this resolution in Congress, and helped instigate it from the outside, are certainly aware of its negative implications for the full implementation of JCPOA and for the future of US-Iranian relations. In order not to waste the efforts of President Obama and all the US officials who worked to negotiate the nuclear deal, these resolutions, as currently drafted, must be stopped before they acquire the force of law.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. What a bunch of sore losers. They could really care less about Iran; what they want is to minimize the black president’s legacy, since they haven’t managed to ruin Obamacare, despite 50-plus tries.

    Republicans cannot seem to wrap their tiny minds around what can and will happen if the JCPOA is violated in any way by the US. The business interests that are standing by waiting for the sanctions on Iran to lift are getting fed up with Washington’s shenanigans and will simply ignore the whole treaty as if it never happened – that will include China and Russia and the several other Eurasian powers eager to speed up the Chinese-led Asian development plan. And they will move so swiftly that Washington will be left with dropping jaws. It will be the rush to AIIB all over again, but a lot bigger.

  2. My gut feel tells me no! Surprisingly the leadership in Iran appears to be more rational, thoughtful and cautious decision maker than the members of US Congress collectively!

  3. I am not sure how the reaction to the inclusion of Iran among the American public will be. As a European, however, I see the fact that members of congress are pushing to include Iran among the countries where we cannot go if we want to enter US on a visa waiver as very dishonest. It is not about fighting ISIS terrorism and Ms. Hunter discusses the reasons for the inclusion. One aspect that she does not mention that I have read elsewhere is that it may give American business an advantage over European counterparts on the Iranian market. If the changes to the Visa Waiver program becomes a reality, the European business leaders may refrain from travelling to Iran because they may then loose the possibility to enter USA easily. Meanwhile, American business leaders can, of course, freely reenter into USA after a visit in Tehran. I guess the Iranian authorities will not ease visa restrictions for Americans, like they did for many European nationalities, anytime soon.

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