By Julian Hattem –
The United States is steaming ahead with implementation of the nuclear deal with Iran, and appears ready to lift sanctions as soon as this month.
The final step in the years-long process could be just “days away,” according to Secretary of State John Kerry.
“I think it could come, without being specific, sooner rather than later,” he told reporters at the State Department this week.
The quick pace of implementation comes despite harsh opposition from Capitol Hill, where critics have accused the administration of emboldening Iran by refusing to get tough in the face of aggressiveness from Tehran.
The administration has failed to adequately punish Iran for a pair of ballistic missile tests, lawmakers say, setting a potentially dangerous precedent.
Iran has also recently sent ships within 1,500 yards of a U.S. aircraft carrier traveling through international waters, and failed to protect Saudi Arabian diplomatic buildings from ransacking protesters outraged over the execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.
According to reports, the White House has backed away from an initial plan to levy new sanctions in retaliation for the missile tests, which are considered to be likely violations of United Nations sanctions.
“There was an intention — Congress had been notified or the indication was that this action was going to be taken,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said this week. “And then the decision was made, after pushback from Iran, not to go forward.”
Next week, the House will vote to tie the administration’s hands, preventing it from lifting sanctions on Iranian banks unless the U.S. can certify that those banks are not involved in financing terrorism or ballistic missiles.
“The question here is one of pushback, given the violation of the U.N. sanctions,” Royce said, during a markup of the bill on Thursday.
The legislation appears dead on arrival should it reach the White House, however, which has strongly opposed efforts to dismantle or hollow out the nuclear pact.
Congressional Democrats — even those who oppose the deal — have also refused to support the legislation.
“This measure really has no chance of becoming law,” the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), said during the markup this week. Engel is an opponent of the Iran deal, which he has said will only empower the rogue nation.
“Congress had an opportunity to vote on the deal and we lost,” he added. “I’m afraid we’re following the same path that we’re following with the Affordable Healthcare Act. Congress has spoken and it’s done.”
In addition to the legislation hitting the House floor next week, lawmakers are also eyeing other steps to punish Iran, in a sign that the pressure on the White House isn’t letting up any time soon.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers unveiled legislation this week to force the administration’s hand by calling for “expedited” sanctions in the face of Iran’s support of terrorism or use of ballistic missiles.
The nuclear pact places limits on Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon in exchange for the lifting of sanctions on its oil and financial sector, which will send billions of dollars to Tehran.
Before sanctions can be lifted against Iran, international inspectors need to certify that Iran has dismantled thousands of centrifuges, reduced its stockpile of uranium and taken other steps to cut off access to a nuclear bomb.
Kerry said on Thursday that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had told him Iran is trying to finalize its obligations “as rapidly as possible.”
Kerry added, “We are currently engaged ourselves in making certain that we’re prepared to move on that day.”
The administration has insisted that the ballistic missile tests, continued imprisonment of Americans and aggressive posturing are outside the scope of the deal. The pact is meant solely to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, supporters say — nothing more.
But officials seem especially eager to implement the deal, which is a pillar of Obama’s legacy, and may be willing to let Iran’s other behavior slide for now.
“The administration is obviously very nervous if implementation day doesn’t come quickly something will happen that will cause the deal to collapse or unravel,” said Gary Samore, an academic at Harvard University and former arms control advisor at the White House.
Once the deal goes into effect, Samore predicted, the White House will likely carry through with the punitive measures that it has pulled back in order to see the deal implemented.
“The administration will want to show that the nuclear deal won’t provide protection for Iran’s actions for non-nuclear activities,” he said.
The Obama administration has insisted that the nuclear accord allows for nations around the globe to beef up sanctions related to Iran’s missile programs, human rights abuses and support of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah.
But Iran has pushed back, claiming that new sanctions would violate the nuclear deal and give it cause for an about-face.
Late in December, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ordered his government to speed up the ballistic missile program, in response to the threat of new sanctions.
“We have never negotiated regarding our defense capabilities including our missile program & will not accept any restrictions in this regard,” Rouhani said on Twitter at the time. “If US continues its illegitimate interference w/ Iran’s right to defend itself a new program will be devised to enhance missile capabilities.”
Iran has also raised concern about new legislation narrowing a program allowing people from 38 countries to enter the U.S. without a visa. New restrictions would bar people who travel to Iran from participating in that program, which Iran has warned would undermine the terms of the nuclear deal.
The Obama administration has tried to reassure Iran, potentially through the use of a special waiver in the law.
Yet to critics of the administration, that sounds like further appeasement. Kerry “was trying to get around the law with a business exception,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said on Friday. “That is clearly not the intent of the bill.”