Will Congress Stop the Iran Deal?
Since July the Israel Lobby and other opponents of the understanding reached by the White House and other parties to limit the Iranian nuclear program have been warning that any celebration would be premature, as the agreement is far from a done deal. President Obama survived initial attempts to create legislative hurdles hindering implementation of the pact, but there are clear signals that the battle is far from over.
Congress is again cranking up its efforts to overturn the agreement, incorporating conditions into sometimes unrelated legislation that seek to circumvent or limit the authority of the president to conduct the nation’s foreign policy. This is being referred to as “round two” by critics of the White House, and Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, is warning that “there will be many, many more rounds” if needed.
This sustained challenge to long-established executive prerogatives in foreign policy is unprecedented and can only be resisted if the White House retains sufficient Democratic votes in Congress to avoid the overriding of a presidential veto. That is by no means certain in an election year in which there will be considerable media and constituent focus on how individual congressmen have voted on contentious issues.
The first measure seeking to marginalize and punish Iran was House Resolution 158, which passed through the House of Representatives by a lopsided 407 to 19 vote on December 8th. The bill, entitled “The Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act of 2015,” altered the existing Immigration and Nationality Act. Rather than going through the Senate independently, where it might have been amended before going to a vote, the act was subsequently rolled into the “must-pass” omnibus spending bill that passed through both the House and Senate on December 18th, and was then signed by President Obama. It is now law.
The Visa Waiver Program includes 38 countries, mostly in Europe, whose citizens can travel to the United States without first obtaining a visa. The program has been in place since 2005 and has generally been regarded as beneficial both for purposes of tourism and business travel. There have been no known security breaches connected to the program.
The bill was a panicked response to the two recent terrorist incidents in Paris and San Bernardino, California, though the changes mandated would in no way have prevented either attack. The concern was that radicalized European citizens who might have traveled to countries known to harbor large numbers of ISIS supporters could use their visa waiver passports to freely enter the United States with the intention of carrying out terrorist acts.
The concern is legitimate, if almost certainly overstated, as an estimated tens of thousands of young Europeans have reportedly joined ISIS, but the proposed legislation creates a number of problems both in terms of international law and agreements that the United States government has entered into. Nor is there any evidence to suggest that it will actually prevent terrorist incidents.
The legislation specifically cites Iran, a persistent and fully committed enemy of ISIS, together with Iraq and Syria, identifying them as countries where either travel or former residency triggers automatic suspension of visa waiver rights. H.R. 158 requires the Department of Homeland Security to designate additional countries where there is increased likelihood that a visitor might become engaged in a credible threat to the U.S., where there is a significant foreign terrorist organization presence, or where there is a safe haven for terrorists. “Dual nationals” of such countries shall be denied visa waivers even if they are traveling on a passport from a visa waiver country. In addition, other travelers from a visa waiver country who have visited any one of the target countries in the past five years shall also be denied entry under the waiver program. Both “nationals” and those who have visited the target countries will be required to apply for normal travel visas, a process that will include mandatory “sharing of information” with the country that issued the prospective traveler’s passport.
In practice this means that any European passport holder who either visits or is by birth from Iraq, Syria, or Iran will be denied an automatic visa to the United States. Ironically, Iran arguably has never carried out a terrorist bombing or suicide attack against the United States while countries whose citizens have done so, including Libya and Pakistan, are not on the list. Saudi Arabia, exporter and supporter of Sunni Muslim terrorism globally, and also the source of nearly all the 9/11 terrorists, is also exempted. This means that someone could visit Pakistan or Libya for weapons training and not be flagged, but if he or she visits Iran for any reason, they could be denied the right to travel to the United States.
The U.S. bill is in violation of World Trade Organization rules against “politicizing trade” and abridging the ability of businessmen to travel freely. In this case, visiting Iran would be punished by denying onward travel to the U.S., so many foreign visitors will avoid Tehran. The law would also be contrary to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that recently resolved the issue of the Iranian nuclear program. The agreement guaranteed that the ability to conduct normal business and trade with Iran would not be impeded.
The inclusion of Iran in the bill does not, of course, have anything to do with the war against ISIS. The American neoconservatives and their congressional allies continue to believe that Iran constitutes the most serious threat against Israel, so it has to be pressured incessantly no matter how it behaves.
Other initiatives are in the works. Recent moves in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) seeking to review Iran’s alleged steps taken to develop a nuclear weapon prior to 2003 have regurgitated the same lies that were surfaced back in 2011, claims regarding Iranian behavior and intentions that were based on empty insinuations and forged documents.
Complaints investigated by the IAEA are generally confidential and sometimes even anonymous but it is known that Israel and the United States were behind the latest moves. The IAEA, which is largely funded by Washington, can be relied on to keep the pressure on Iran.
This week’s incident in which Iran briefly detained 10 U.S. Navy personnel who had unintentionally entered into Iranian territorial waters is being magnified in the media, with some questioning whether it was an “act of war.” It was not, by any reasonable standard, and would be quickly forgotten if it had involved anyone but Iran. It will surely be exploited for emotional value over the next few days.
There also have been stories popping up in the Israel-friendly media claiming that Iran is testing ballistic missiles in violation of United Nations resolutions, allegations that are being exploited in a bid to impose new sanctions and wreck the nuclear agreement. The White House is under pressure to impose sanctions, as Obama maintains that the missiles are an element in the nuclear agreement, a point of view not shared by Iran. For the moment, the relatively mild sanctions being considered are on hold as the administration is keen to have the nuclear agreement move forward.
Congress has still more up its sleeve. Later this month, Senators will likely seek to extend the Iran Sanctions Act for 10 years, including specific provisions targeting the country’s energy and financial sectors. Ironically, the extension will likely be debated while President Obama will actually be trying to finalize the lifting of the existing sanctions as part of the JCPOA. Supporters of the extension argue that the new authorization will only be on the table, available for the president to use if Iran misbehaves. The intention is clearly to exercise “rigorous” congressional oversight to pressure Iran into responding aggressively to the violation of the spirit of JCPOA, leading to a tit for tat escalation that would put the overall agreement in jeopardy.
Particularly worrying to President Obama is the fact that the sanctions extension effort is being spearheaded by two Democratic Senators, Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Ben Cardin of Maryland. If two more Democratic Senators can be convinced to join them, it could mean a veto proof majority in the Senate of 67 votes. Six Democratic representatives, including Democratic National Committee head Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, have also written to Obama demanding sanctions against Iran. On a bill that came to a vote this week intended to restrict Obama’s ability to lift Iranian sanctions, the House voted 191-106 in favor along party lines with 137 abstentions, many of them Democrats, suggesting that support for the president on the issue is very soft.
The proposed Senate extension of sanctions is still somewhat speculative, while the House visa waiver bill will undoubtedly be difficult to enforce as intended, since many Muslims living in France and Britain were born in those countries and have never traveled to the areas where their families originated generations ago. The legislation is so transparently offensive and even illegal that many international friends normally accommodating to U.S. interests will speak up. Visa waiver countries offer reciprocity to visiting Americans, a practice that could easily be amended to pushback against U.S. policies. Indeed, David O’Sullivan, the European Union ambassador to the United States, is already warning that “some of these ideas are being rushed through without necessarily thinking out fully the consequences.”
Many European citizens with Muslim names will continue to be eligible for visa waivers but will inevitably come under suspicion every time they choose to travel to the United States. Their mistreatment by U.S. immigration authorities will no doubt be reported in the international media, but it is the punishing of Iran even when it is blameless that has, disgracefully, become reflexive action for many in the United States government. Worse still, Congress and the Israel Lobby will continue to be creative in adding to the indignities, doing their best to scupper the nuclear agreement even though it is clearly in everyone’s interest.
The latest threats from Washington will accomplish absolutely nothing constructive and will restore the tense state of no-war and no-peace between the U.S. and Iran. If pushed to its logical conclusion, the truculent meddling could very easily lead to a real war.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.