More than one year has elapsed since the Iran nuclear deal went into effect in January 2016. Since then, scarcely a week has passed without new instances of malign Iranian behavior. Recent provocations are testing whether the Trump Administration will mount a decisive response to persuade Tehran to change course or face severe consequences.
Iran still seeks to destabilize the region.
The Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has failed to engender Iranian moderation—something hoped for by many supporters of the agreement. Instead, hardline forces allied with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have solidified their position over Iran’s political and economic life. The result has been a litany of aggressions in pursuit of Iran’s revolutionary aspirations to dominate the Middle East and eject American influence.
Underscoring the Iranian threat, U.S. Central Command commander Gen. Joseph Votel told lawmakers on March 9, the U.S. military and its allies are “dealing with a range of malign activities perpetrated by Iran and its proxies” in the Middle East. “It is my view that Iran poses the greatest long-term threat to stability for this part of the world,” he said, adding that Iran seeks to be the “regional hegemon.” “No other nation operates the way they do in the Arabian Gulf. And they need to be held accountable for that, and they need to be exposed for those types of unprofessional, unsafe and abnormal activities.”
Iran’s escalating campaign of malign activities fall into several broad categories.
Iran’s aggressive behavior can be categorized in multiple ways, the first of which are Iranian violations of the JCPOA. On two separate occasions, in February and November 2016, the IAEA found that Iran’s heavy water stockpile exceeded the JCPOA limits. In both instances, Iran came into compliance with its obligations by shipping the excess heavy water to Oman. However, Iran only shipped out the material after the P5+1 (the United Nations Security Council permanent members plus Germany) agreed to allow Iran to import significant quantities of natural uranium.
Second, Iran has repeatedly violated the arms embargo contained in Annex B of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231. Iran seeks to destabilize or dominate neighboring countries including Yemen, Syria, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq and Lebanon, and it has shipped arms to its agents in all of these countries over the past year. Most recently, on Jan. 22, Ukrainian authorities announced the seizure of a shipment of Russian-made anti-tank guided missiles bound for Iran.
Third, Iran has advanced its ballistic missiles program in defiance of UNSCR 2231. Since the JCPOA came into effect, Iran has conducted no fewer than seven ballistic missile tests—with a pay-load capacity capable of carrying nuclear weapons. On Feb. 3, the Treasury Department responded to a Jan. 29 test launch of a medium-range ballistic missile by announcing new sanctions against 13 individuals and 12 entities in Iran, China and the United Arab Emirates. Those sanctioned were known to be providing key technology to Iran’s ballistic missile program and the IRGC’s foreign activities branch, the Quds Force. Iran responded to the imposition of the new sanctions with yet another test launch of a pair of shorter-range ballistic missiles earlier this month.
The latest ballistic missile test was reportedly successful in striking a floating barge 155 miles away from the launch site, sending a clear and menacing signal about Iran’s ability to strike at the U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf. That same week, IRGC fast-attack naval vessels harassed a U.S. ship, the USS Invincible. A Pentagon official noted that Iran provoked 35 similar “unsafe and unprofessional” incidents in 2016, the first year of the nuclear deal, more than a 50 percent increase from the 23 in 2015.
Fourth, Iran has stepped up its sponsorship of terrorism. According to the State Department, Iran remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism—financing, arming and training terrorist groups operating around the world, including Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, as well as the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. For more than three decades, Iran and its terrorist proxies have targeted American civilians and military personnel. From the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut to more than a decade of IED attacks against U.S. military personnel in Iraq, Iran’s terrorist proxies have killed more Americans worldwide than any group except al-Qaida.
And since implementation of the Iran deal in January 2016, Iran has boosted its support for Hezbollah, providing the terrorist group with increased military, economic and diplomatic support. Hezbollah Leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah openly admitted in July 2016, "Hezbollah gets its money and arms from Iran, and as long as Iran has money, so does Hezbollah." The IRGC also provides supply, training and direction to tens of thousands of Syrian forces, Hezbollah terrorists and Shia militiamen in Syria; some of these forces have operated directly on Israel’s northern border in the Syrian Golan Heights.
The United States must counter these aggressions.
Iran’s nefarious actions are part of Iran’s strategy to dominate the Middle East. America and our allies must thwart Iran’s malign ambitions:
The United States should make clear to Iran that any further violations of the JCPOA will not be tolerated and will be met with severe and appropriate penalties.
The United States should counter Iran’s violation of a U.N.-imposed arms embargo. The administration must insist that the U.N. strictly enforce its own edicts, and should work in concert with our allies to apply appropriate countermeasures when Iranian arms smuggling efforts are detected.
The United States should identify additional entities involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program and sanction both of those entities and those supporting them.
The United States should formally designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization. The IRGC, both directly and through its proxies, supports terrorist activities throughout the world. This designation would clear up an anomaly in current U.S. policy: Although there is no practical difference between the IRGC and the Quds Force, the U.S. government has only designated the latter as a terrorist group. The Quds Force is a vital component of the IRGC, and resources and personnel are often shared between the two. The leadership of the IRGC controls and directs the actions of the Quds Force. A designation would put pressure on Iran to minimize the IRGC role in Iran’s economy or risk further economic isolation, and would also serve as a stark reminder to the international business community of the dangers in operating in the Iranian economy.
A bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill is forming in favor of new action to counter Iran.
Key congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle are organizing in support of new efforts to counter Iran. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) responded to Iran’s most recent ballistic missile test by noting: “These provocative tests are just the latest example of Iran’s dangerous actions that demand a coordinated, multifaceted response from the United States. The administration has already begun to push back in the way that we should, and I look forward to working with them as we prepare to introduce bipartisan legislation to deter Iran’s threatening behavior on all fronts.”
Said SFRC Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-MD): "We want to make sure that it doesn't violate the Iran nuclear agreement and we're trying to tailor it to Iran's current nefarious actions. So we're working on something."
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) echoed Corker’s call for new sanctions legislation: "Iran needs to know that notwithstanding the nuclear agreement, that their violations of international order rules…have consequences.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said, “I think it is now time for Congress to take Iran on directly in terms of what they’ve done outside the nuclear program."
Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also backed tougher action: “Sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program were successful because of the extraordinary unity within the international community. We must approach the remaining challenges in a similar way if we are to be successful in changing Iran’s behavior.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said: “There’s going to be a conversation about what the proportional response is. But I don’t necessarily think there’s going to be partisan division over whether or not we have the ability as Congress to speak on issues outside of the nuclear agreement.”
“Iran’s continuing intercontinental ballistic missile program—whose only purpose is to carry a nuclear warhead—must be front and center," said Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce (R-CA). “This month’s designations are a good start. But more can be done to find and target the banks and companies that are supplying this dangerous program aimed at us. It also means more extraditions, prosecutions, and indictments of sanctions violators.”
“We better make sure that Iran understands that there are severe consequences, if they continue their ways,” stated House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY).
New sanctions and actions to push back against Iran’s non-nuclear actions would in no way violate the letter or spirit of the JCPOA.
As the Obama Administration made clear, the JCPOA only covers nuclear issues and was not intended to limit U.S. freedom of action against Iran’s terrorist activities. In an August 2015 letter to Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), then-President Obama wrote, “Critically, I made sure that the United States reserved its right to maintain and enforce existing sanctions and even to deploy new sanctions to address those continuing concerns, which we fully intend to do when circumstances warrant.”
Iran has largely deflected any effort to penalize its misdeeds by threatening to abrogate the JCPOA whenever the topic of non-nuclear sanctions arises. America must not capitulate to such tactics, which will only encourage further Iranian misbehavior. The United States must respond vigorously to Tehran’s provocations and place the onus back on Iran to curb its aggression.
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