Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei addressed members of the Basij paramilitary force on Wednesday, doubling down on charges that the U.S. had transgressed last summer’s nuclear deal. Iran, he thundered, “has no fear of any power in this world,” and warned that if Washington passes sanctions laid out in a recent House bill, it would constitute a violation of the deal that would “certainly” require Tehran to “react.”
The legislation would extend by a decade the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) – portions of which President Obama waived as part of the nuclear deal, and was set to expire at the end of the year. Originally enacted in 1996, the act targeted Iran’s energy sector and expanded U.S. secondary-sanction prerogatives. It also laid the predicate for heavier sanctions on Tehran in the future, such as the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA).
It’s crucial that ISA remain public law. As Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) has said, “If you’re going to snap back, you got to snap back to something, and if the Iran Sanctions Act … [doesn’t] exist after next year, there’s nothing to snap back to.” Now, following the loosening of international sanctions against Iran pursuant to the nuclear deal, ISA can serve as a pillar in the remaining U.S. sanctions architecture on the Islamic Republic.
For their part, Iranian outlets and officials have disparaged the U.S. for allegedly violating the nuclear deal by keeping non-nuclear sanctions on the books. However, these statements can be best understood as part of Iran’s broader strategy of seeking additional sanctions relief by claiming U.S. failures to uphold its end of the nuclear bargain.
In the week since the ISA’s reauthorization, several Iranian Friday prayer leaders decried the renewal as emblematic of U.S. duplicity. Iranian officials have similarly derided the move, with 220 members of parliament issuing a condemnation of the House vote and security officials implicitly threatening to violate the nuclear accord in response.
Wednesday’s remarks are the first time the supreme leader has identified a specific statuary measure as a breach of the deal. Khamenei’s threat to “react” to this bill aims to do two things.
The first is to further the strategy which Khamenei’s lieutenants have diligently carried out: complaining of U.S. nuclear-deal violations to wring further concessions. The second is to draw clear red lines to test both President Obama’s commitment to the deal in his administration’s final weeks, as well as President-elect Trump’s resolve to enforce or potentially even renegotiate the accord after he is sworn in.
Most companies and banks are under the assumption that ISA will be extended. For that to happen, the Senate must now vote on the House bill, which it has promised to do by this year’s end. Moreover, the president must sign the renewal back into law; otherwise, its measures will expire and Congress will have to start fresh in 2017. Whatever the outcome, Iran’s supreme leader has raised the stakes over who defines transgressions of the deal. His threat, however, that Tehran has “no fear” may be proven mere bluster if the incoming U.S. administration shows itself more committed to countering Iranian aggression.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior Iran analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.