This week, Congress moved to sanction Iran, North Korea, and Russia in an attempt to reestablish the utility of financial restraints as a means of challenging the malign behavior of hostile regimes. The overwhelming vote of the House of Representatives was 419-3 in favor of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. While the North Korea and Russia sanctions looked to be hot topics for members of Congress looking to respond to election interference and missile tests, the Iran-related components of the bill sailed through with tough new provisions on Iran’s ballistic missile programs and strong language on the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ support for terrorism.
Originally, significant disagreement on Capitol Hill had muddied the water on sanctioning Iran for its destabilizing activities. Many suggested that further sanctions would prompt Iran to walk away from its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Through the terms of the JCPOA, many Iranian entities – including banks, shipping assets, energy sector firms, and key individuals – had sanctions lifted through the agreement. However, this latest piece of legislation would impose sanctions on targets controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which operates a massive global business network that represents an estimated 20 to 40 percent of the Iranian economy, and is heavily invested in many strategic sectors in Iran.
The bill the House voted on this week is largely similar to the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017, which passed the Senate by a vote of 98-2 in June. These nearly unanimous votes in the House and Senate show that Congress is ready to reassert itself in declaring policy towards Iran.
The House bill has several tools to aid Congress in its oversight capacity. It requires that the administration provide a regional strategy for countering conventional and asymmetric threats emanating from Iran and its proxies throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The legislation also imposes additional sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program and individuals associated with illegal procurement. In addition, the bill states that 90 days after enactment, the president shall impose sanctions on the IRGC and foreign persons that are officials, agents, or affiliates of the IRGC. The legislation states the IRGC is subject to sanctions under Executive Orders 13224, 13382, 13553, and 13606, which are imposed for terrorism, illegal actions to acquire weapons of mass destruction, human rights abuses, and human rights abuses enabled by information technology. The legislation also states, “The IRGC, not just the IRGC–QF [Quds Force, the IRGC special forces branch], is responsible for implementing Iran’s international program of destabilizing activities, support for acts of international terrorism, and ballistic missile program.”
Further, the bill imposes additional sanctions on human rights abusers that are involved in extrajudicial killings, torture, and repression. Separately, section 107 includes penalties for any person who attempts to materially support Iran’s conventional weapons capability, including training and financing.
One of the key components of the new legislation is its restrictive approach to presidential waiver authority. In previous sanctions packages, a broad waiver authority gave the president almost complete discretion to suspend sanctions continually on vaguely-defined national security grounds. The structure of the new legislation would require the administration, prior to using a waiver, to report to Congress on the activity of the person or entity in question along with information regarding whether the activity is contributing to the ability of Iran to threaten the interests of the U.S. or its allies.
These provisions represent a resurgence of congressional authority to hold Iran accountable for its actions and require greater information sharing between the administration and Congress on sanctionable activity performed by the IRGC, the Iranian government, and its proxies.
Tyler Stapleton is deputy director for congressional relations at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Tyler on Twitter @Ty_D_Stapleton.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.