On Thursday, December 1, the United States Senate unanimously passed a 10-year extension of pre-existing sanctions against Iran. Now all eyes are on Tehran, waiting for a response from the Islamic Republic.
The bill has been sent to President Obama, and if he signs it, it will become law.
The sanctions extension is unrelated to Iran’s nuclear program and the law would not interfere with or revoke the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the official name for the nuclear deal that restricts Iran’s nuclear program — signed by Iran and the P5+1 countries on July 14, 2015. But Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has argued otherwise, stating that the extension of US sanctions violates the JCPOA. At the very least, this public stance shows just how vulnerable the nuclear deal, which went into effect on October 18, 2015, is at this point in time.
For the moment, Iranian government officials have pinned their hopes on Barack Obama. At the end of November, President Rouhani’s advisor Hessameddin Ashena said that if Obama vetoes the bill, he can “forestall the consequences of the measure.” And Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said on December 1 that Obama had used his powers to prevent anti-JCPOA measures from taking effect.
Violating the “Spirit” or the “Letter”?
Previously, the Iranian government has used the phrase “violation of the spirit of the JCPOA” to describe certain measures taken by the US. But it is unlikely that it can use the same term when describing the renewal of sanctions. In fact the two terms — “violating the spirit of the JCPOA” and “anti-JCPOA” — express two distinct positions Iran has taken toward the nuclear agreement.
In Iran, the JCPOA Supervisory Board has the task of monitoring and guiding the implementation of the nuclear deal. Members of the board are selected by Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. But over the last year, the board has not published a single report about the implementation of the agreement. At present, the board is comprised of President Rouhani, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, former Defense Minister Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, and Saeed Jalili, the chief nuclear negotiator under former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. All of the members, except Jalili, support the JCPOA, and are obviously very reluctant to publish anything that would suggest the agreement is in serious trouble.
Watch Out for “Treachery”
Five months ago, Ayatollah Khamenei asked the board to be on guard and to act whenever necessary to defend national interests in the face of “treachery” from the other side. But the board has not officially responded to this directive from the supreme leader, possibly because they do not view the JCPOA in the same way that he does. Khamenei’s repeated statements about US violations of the JCPOA and the silence of the supervisory board neatly illustrate these divergent positions. And it seems that a speech given by Khamenei on November 23 was meant to force the hand of the board. “If these sanctions are renewed, this is definitely a violation of the JCPOA,” he said. “And they should know that the Islamic Republic will surely react to it...They [the Americans] have not done what they had promised to do at that time and what was supposed to be done on the first day... Our officials are saying this openly.”
But how is the JCPOA Supervisory Board likely to respond now that the US Senate has extended the sanctions? Ali Shamkhani, who is also the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, has said that if Iran detects violation of the nuclear accord, Iran has the deterrent power to cope with it. Adding to this, Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization, has said that “necessary precautions have been taken.” According to him, if the JCPOA falls apart, Iran can regain most of it nuclear enrichment capabilities within a year and a half.
But Speaker Larijani had a more measured and less bellicose response. “We will respond accordingly as the situation evolves,” he said. “Parliament is discussing the matter.” Speaking on December 1, reformist MP Mohammad Reza Tabesh announced that parliament had drawn up a bill “to ban imports of American consumer products” as a retaliation against potential hostile actions from the US.
It is not clear whether this proposed bill is what Larijani had in mind when he talked about deliberations in parliament. But what is clear is that hardliners continue to demand tougher actions from the Iranian government. They probably consider this bill to be a diversionary tactic, and it is likely that Khamenei will reject the move. The other possible solution to the matter would be to refer the matter the Joint Commission for the resolution of disputes, as provided by the JCPOA. Iran could file a complaint against the US for violating the agreement and ask for arbitration.
Goal: Discredit the JCPOA
But neither the hardliners or Ayatollah Khamenei favor the arbitration solution. They believe that the way the commission is set up works against Iran and, in any case, the results of any findings would be unpredictable. In a sense, they are right to worry — because if the commission did reject Iran’s complaint, it would be a humiliating political defeat for Iran.
But then, hardliners and Ayatollah Khamenei tend to welcome any talk of US violations of the JCPOA — even if it is based on speculation or empty slogans. Their ultimate goal is altogether something else. They want to prove that the US cannot be trusted, and that the JCPOA is not only not a badge of honor, but that it has proven itself to be useless. The more this kind of talk spreads, the less able President Rouhani will be to use the nuclear agreement as part of his re-election campaign in 2017. This is more important to hardliners than any solid, powerful response to perceived US violations of the JCPOA. They know that a strong reaction, or any action by Iran to scuttle the JCPOA, can be a lose-lose proposition for the Rouhani administration and the US. Now, with the vote in the US senate, they have a freer hand to shout their anti-JCPOA slogans, insist that violations have taken place, and threaten further action if the situation does not go their way.