On July 27, the United States Senate voted 98-2 to impose new sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea, supporting the House of Representatives’ decision to do the same two days previously. The vote in the House was equally overwhelmingly veto-proof, with representatives voting for sanctions 419 to 3. The act, labeled H.R.3364, “directs the president to impose sanctions against: (1) Iran's ballistic missile or weapons of mass destruction programs, (2) the sale or transfer to Iran of military equipment or the provision of related technical or financial assistance, and (3) Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and affiliated foreign persons.”

The act also allows the US president to “impose sanctions against persons responsible for violations of internationally recognized human rights committed against individuals in Iran.”

US and European media have largely concentrated on sanctions against Russia and the question of President’s Trump’s reaction. Trump is expected to sign it, despite his stated preference to improve relations with Russia, and at that point the measure will come into effect. 

But in Iran, as expected, it has opened a fresh battle between those who criticize the nuclear agreement and supporters of President Rouhani. Immediately following the US Senate’s vote, Iranian politicians started a public dispute over the significance of the sanctions and how to respond to them, signaling serious divisions within the leadership of the Islamic Republic.

The main spokesman for the critics of the nuclear agreement — officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — has turned out to be Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei’s representative at Iran’s High National Security Council. 

He has challenged parliament’s Speaker Ali Larijani and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, who was the chief negotiator when the JCPOA was signed. What makes this public disagreement even more significant is that both Saeed Jalili and Ali Larijani are members of the JCPOA Supervisory Board, and Abbas Araghchi leads the team responsible for implementing the nuclear agreement.

“Nothing New Here!”

On July 27, Speaker Larijani told the press that the new US sanctions “are nothing new,” and that they were simply a continuation of previous sanctions. Speaking on television on July 29, Araghchi said no new sanctions had been imposed. “They have added new individuals to the [sanctions] list but they are not imposing new sanctions,” he said. He also emphasized that the JCPOA Supervisory Board had received an official report about the new measures but “as of now they have not indicated that they consider adding individuals to the list means imposing new sanctions.”

Araghchi said the sanctions do violate the JCPOA, but that no “egregious” violation had taken place. He had previously said that the re-imposition of lifted sanctions — also known as “snap-back” — would be considered a serious violation and if that happened Iran would respond by “quickly returning to uranium enrichment.”

On July 29, in a meeting in his office with a number of current and former members of parliament and Iranian officials, Saeed Jalili dismissed suggestions that Iran should have a “soft” response to the new sanctions [Persian link]. He called the sanctions a “naked” violation of the JCPOA. “According to these sanctions [passed by] by Congress,” he said “the Executive Order 13382 issued by the US president in 2005 has become a new law. In addition, other vast and new sanctions have been imposed on Iran…It is not clear on what basis these people claim that this law cannot be considered a new [set of] sanctions or that they are simply an aggregation of previous sanctions.”

Signed by President George W. Bush on June 29, 2005, the executive order aimed “at freezing the assets of proliferators of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their supporters, and isolating them financially. Designations…prohibit all transactions between the designees and any US person, and freeze any assets the designees may have under US jurisdiction. The Iran-Iraq Nonproliferation Act of 1992 sanctioned foreign entities that provided Iran with WMD technology or destabilizing numbers and types of conventional weapons.”

Abbas Araghchi said Trump’s administration was trying to force Iran to leave the JCPOA, but that Iranian officials were “not playing in Mr. Trump’s field.” Without naming names, Jalili indirectly responded to Aragchi’s comment. “Some say that the enemy is waiting for us to violate the JCPOA and [therefore] must not be provided with excuses,” he said. “Then why is the enemy’s behavior misrepresented when it violates the JCPOA without any excuses?” 

Jalili did not elaborate what actions Iran could take against the American sanctions, but it is clear that he wants to convince the Iranian public and politicians that the US has imposed new sanctions on Iran and that they must be viewed as a violation of the JCPOA.

The Importance of Being “New”

But why is it so important for Iranian politicians to determine whether the sanctions are new or not? On August 10, 2015 the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei wrote a letter to Iranian government officials endorsing the JCPOA, at the same time setting out nine conditions for its implementation. Number three on the list of conditions was that, if at any time during the eight-year implementation period of the JCPOA, any of the countries “party to the negotiations imposes sanctions at any level and with any excuse (including oft-repeated and made-up excuses about terrorism and human rights), it must be considered a violation of the JCPOA, and the government must take necessary actions based on Provision 3 of the parliament’s act and stop the JCPOA process.”

According to Provision 3 of the “Proportionate and Reciprocal Action by the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Implementing the JCPOA” parliamentary act, if the other party does not adhere to the “effective lifting of sanctions” or re-imposes sanctions under any other excuse, then the Iranian government must “stop voluntary cooperation” and “increase the country’s enrichment capacity to 190,000 SWU [Separative Work Unit] within two years.” But the act also leaves the decision to Iran’s High National Security Council. In other words, such a scenario is not triggered automatically, but must be decided by the council. Its decision must then be approved by the Supreme Leader before the government is obliged to act on it.

For the moment, it does not appear that most members of either the High National Security Council or the JCPOA Supervisory Board agree to such a course of action. The most that the Islamic Republic has been willing to do so far is introduce a bill to “fight American adventurous and terrorist actions in the region,” which was approved by the parliament on July 18. According to this act, Iran would impose sanctions on individuals and entities who cooperate with the US government in areas such as violating human rights, supporting terrorism or actions against Iranian interests. The government must also provide the armed forces with 1,000 billion tomans (over $300 million) to expand Iran’s missile program and the expeditionary Quds Force with the same amount to “fight terrorism.”

Speaking on television, Araghchi made it implicitly clear that the act passed by the Iranian parliament was more symbolic than anything else. But this “symbolic” response to the US actions is going to cost Rouhani’s government more than $600 million. And who are the beneficiaries of the act? Mainly the Revolutionary Guards and the Quds Force. And this must make the US Congress very happy.

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