Deal or no nuclear deal, Iran continues to threaten the security of the United States and the world. And yet the leading U.S. law dealing with that threat—the law authorizing the sanctions that brought Iran’s economy to its knees and thus made the nuclear deal possible—is set to expire this New Year’s Day. Congress is poised to renew the law, but unfortunately, the Obama administration has not committed to signing the legislation, claiming its other existing legal authorities are sufficient to hold Tehran accountable for its dangerous activities. But the administration is wrong. Congress and the president should act together to extend the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA).
First, letting ISA expire would send a terrible message when Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons—and the missiles to deliver them—continues to threaten America and the world. The Iran nuclear deal established a framework to purportedly resolve the Iranian nuclear threat, but that threat is far from resolved yet. Reports indicate that Tehran is already cheating on the margins of the nuclear deal, including by exceeding the deal’s restrictions on possession of low-enriched uranium and heavy water. Iran has also reportedly continued to try to illegally procure nuclear technology. Tehran has also launched multiple ballistic missile tests, which the U.S., United Kingdom, France, and Germany have deemed “inconsistent with” and “in defiance of” the United Nations Security Council resolution sealing the nuclear deal.
Further, under the deal, the limits on Iran’s nuclear activities eventually diminish over time, leaving Tehran poised to quickly develop nuclear weapons at a time of its choosing. So when the danger of a nuclear Iran remains clear and present for the foreseeable future, why should the U.S. scrap its main law addressing that danger?
Second, while addressing Iran’s nuclear program, ISA’s focus has always extended beyond only that threat to include Iran’s sponsorship of international terrorism. In fact, when then-President Bill Clinton signed ISA’s original text into law 20 years ago, his remarks at the signing ceremony focused almost entirely on the threat from Iran’s terror sponsorship and only briefly mentioned Tehran’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.
The crux of the issue was that as big foreign companies were signing lucrative contracts with the world’s leading state sponsor of terror, the United States was, in President Clinton’s words, “fully prepared to act to restrict the funds to Iran… that fuel terrorist attacks.” As Mr. Clinton declared, “every advanced country is going to have to make up its mind whether it can do business with people by day who turn around and fuel attacks on their innocent civilians by night.” ISA is America’s leading tool to deter foreign companies from doing such business with Iran.
Today, despite the nuclear deal, Iran remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism (as confirmed this past June by the U.S. State Department). Tehran backs murderous groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Shiite militias in Iraq.. Secretary of State John Kerry even admitted in January that some of the money Iran receives due to the nuclear deal will likely end up in the hands of terrorist organizations. So why should America let expire a law aimed at combating Iranian support for terrorism when Iran continues to support terrorism?
Third, the U.S. can use ISA to push back on other destabilizing Iranian behavior. Tehran has the blood of hundreds of thousands of Syrians on its hands due to its support for the Assad dictatorship. U.S. officials also know that Iran supplied the Houthi rebels in Yemen with the type of missiles that were fired at U.S. Navy ships off the coast of Yemen last month. Now is the time for the U.S. to shore up its legal leverage to deal with Iran’s threatening behavior, not to weaken it.
Fourth, the Obama administration is correct that the executive branch has general powers—particularly under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA)—to penalize Iran. However, it takes precious time to draft, consider, announce, and implement new executive regulations to punish Iran specifically, whereas ISA provides a ready-made, extensive, specific sanctions system to impose the moment the president determines that Tehran is not complying with its nuclear commitments. Why force a future administration to reinvent the wheel if and when new sanctions on Iran become necessary?
Iran is putting America and American lives at risk. Now is not the time to respond by abandoning our longstanding, leading law to address that risk. Now is the time to reauthorize ISA for years to come, strictly enforce the nuclear deal, and push back hard against Iranian violations and aggression in all forms.