Transition officials have begun sounding out Republicans in Congress about the options for sanctions that might not technically breach the 2015 nuclear deal. They could include measures that focus on Iran’s ballistic missile programme or its human rights record, say congressional sources.
Although the Trump team is a long way from deciding how it will approach the nuclear deal, its Iran policy work is being led by an expert on sanctions legislation.
“They are already looking closely at their options — and that very much includes non-nuclear sanctions,” says one congressional official who has been in touch with the transition team.
During the election campaign Donald Trump, president-elect, described the Iran nuclear agreement as the “worst deal ever negotiated” and alternated between saying he would tear it up and that he would renegotiate it.
The decisions he makes about how to approach the deal, which lifted nuclear-related sanctions in return for limits on Tehran’s nuclear programme, will be one of the defining issues of the first months of his administration.
Supporters of new sanctions, which would probably enjoy strong backing in Congress, say that they could pressure Tehran into making concessions on issues such as its support of militant proxy groups in the Middle East, without the US having to pay the diplomatic cost that would come from scrapping the deal.
However, the risk is that unilateral moves by the US could alienate the European allies who also signed the agreement and therefore limit the international pressure on Iran.
Officials and experts in contact with the transition team are in the early stages of developing an Iran policy, especially as Mr Trump has yet to choose a secretary of state. However, the team has started preparatory work on new sanctions. The point person for Iran on the transition is Yleem Poblete, a former senior staff official at the House foreign affairs committee where she was closely involved in drafting the main pieces of Iran sanctions legislation.
A number of senior Republicans have urged the Trump administration not to scrap the Iran deal immediately because of the damage it would do to US relations with its allies.
However, they also have a number of proposals for non-nuclear sanctions that could be reintroduced in the new Congress next year and for which they would like to get support from the Trump White House.
Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee and a candidate to be Mr Trump’s secretary of state, introduced a bill this year to impose sanctions on more officials involved in Iran’s ballistic missile programme and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corporation.
Lindsey Graham, Republican senator from South Carolina, has said he would introduce a bill that applies sanctions on sectors of the economy connected to the missile programme. Kevin McCarthy, House majority leader, has put forward three bills that would add new sanctions on Iran.
“The big difference next year is that we will go from a White House that did everything it could to block these bills to a White House that will be in favour and maybe even sponsor some of these proposals,” said a Republican congressional source.
Some of these proposed bills might also win support from senior Democrats. Chuck Schumer, the incoming Senate minority leader, and Ben Cardin, the leading Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, opposed the Iran deal.
Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think-tank, said new sanctions would raise the pressure on Tehran by “increasing the uncertainty in the marketplace” about whether it was legal to do business in Iran.
“The one foreign policy issue that unites all the different elements of the Republican party is Iran,” he said. “There would be broad support in Congress if the Trump administration takes a tougher approach.”
Chris Coons, Democratic senator from Delaware, said the UK, France and Germany, which were involved in the Iran deal, have suggested they would accept additional US measures within the sanctions framework but oppose new restrictions. The remaining US sanctions include measures related to support for terrorism, human rights abuse and Iran’s missile programme.
Blaise Misztal, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s national security programme, says new non-nuclear sanctions would expose a gap in how the US and Iran interpret the agreement.
“The US says that the deal lifted sanctions related to the nuclear programme but does not affect any other sanctions,” he says. “But Iran says that any new sanctions that recreate the economic effect of the nuclear sanctions will be a breach of the deal.” The key, he says, will be that any new steps taken by the US to pressure Iran be taken in co-ordination with the European allies.
The Senate voted unanimously on Thursday to extend the Iran Sanctions Act that underpins the sanctions regime, despite quiet opposition from the Obama administration and more open criticism from Iran which said it was a violation of the nuclear agreement.
Following a similarly strong vote for extending the law in the House of Representatives last week, senators said the extension was necessary so that the US could reimpose sanctions quickly if Iran were to breach the nuclear agreement.
The Financial Times