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US Congress looks to revisit Iran sanctions

26 Oct 2017, 3.46 pm GMT

US Congress looks to revisit Iran sanctions

Washington, 26 October (Argus) — A bill mandating US sanctions targeting Iran's missile program sailed through the House of Representatives today.

The House bill, which passed by a 423-2 vote, would impose sanctions on entities involved with Iran's missile program and those who provide or receive conventional weapons from the country. The bill would not affect US obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the agreement that in January 2016 lifted nuclear-related sanctions on Iran's crude exports.

Trump earlier this month invoked a 2015 law, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, to declare the JCPOA was no longer in the US national interest.

The administration did not reimpose nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, and it advised Congress not do so. It suggested that Congress instead amend the 2015 law by expanding the number of conditions that would trigger reimposition of the restrictions on Iranian crude sales.

Congressional leaders appear intent to follow that course of action. Legislation outlined by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) would use the threat of sanctions to extend restrictions on Iran's nuclear program beyond the 10-year limit set in the JCPOA. Corker has said his approach would take into consideration concerns from his Democratic colleagues about maintaining US commitments under the nuclear deal.

Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), a long-time critic of the agreement, earlier this week said he supported the goal of amending the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act per Trump's request.

"I do not think it is necessary for Congress to reimpose sanctions, because the president can reimpose them at any time," Cotton said.

The administration suggested adding a clause that would make it possible to apply oil sector sanctions to Iran's ballistic missile tests. But the legislation that Corker has outlined for now omits that point.

"The missile program is exclusively within the purview of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps" — a security force with extensive holdings in Iran's economy, says Georgetown University professor Ariane Tabatabai. That would make it hard for Iran's president Hassan Rohani to negotiate on the missile program, according to Tabatabai.

The US administration singled out the Guard Corps for additional sanctions this month. The sanctions have limited legal implications, but they "send a chilling message to companies doing business in Iran," said Annie Fixler, a policy analyst with hawkish think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

The administration is keen to reinforce the message. "Those who conduct business with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, any of their entities — European companies or other companies around the globe — really do so at great risk," US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said during a visit to Riyadh earlier this week.

Tenco, an Iranian oil and gas company linked to the Guard Corps, is among companies Tehran is allowing to participate in the giant Azadegan oil field tender next year. The other contenders for the field are Total, Shell, Malaysia's state-owned Petronas and Japan's Inpex.

Tehran criticized Trump's decision to unilaterally force changes to the JCPOA but pledged to remain bound by the agreement unless US takes active steps to unravel it. Tehran listed stronger US actions against the Guard Corps among red lines that could prompt it to leave the agreement.

The administration and its allies in Congress portray their moves as building leverage against Tehran to force it to negotiate on issues of contention with the US.

But the outcome "could only result from give-and-take among the parties and the US would have to put something on the table," according to Philip Gordon, who served as the White House's top Middle East adviser in 2013-15, under former president Barack Obama.

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