One of the first actions that House lawmaker Alcee Hastings (D-FL) decided to take in the Trump-era is to authorize the new President to bomb Iran. Hastings, who along with his colleagues in the 115th Congress was just sworn in earlier this week, was one of a small minority of House Democrats who voted against the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. His legislation, which he first introduced last year and has now reintroduced in the new Congress, would preemptively give the President formal authority to utilize military force against Iran. While the legislation is unlikely to attract significant support, Hastings' effort is the first of what is expected to be a tsunami of hawkish Iran legislation as the new Congress gets underway.
Another bill introduced in the opening week of Congress, from Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), would impose sanctions on Iran over the country’s ballistic missile program and could receive significant support. Some argue that the U.S. has unlimited ability to impose sanctions on Iran provided they are for non-nuclear purposes. However, the nuclear deal itself obligates the U.S. to prevent the re-imposition of sanctions lifted under the accord for a separate justification. Further, additional obligations prevent the U.S. from taking actions intended to disrupt the normalization of permissible economic activity with Iran and to take proactive steps to ensure Iran’s access in areas such as finance. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) introduced a ballistic missile sanction bill last year that would clearly violate U.S. obligations under the deal. After Ayotte lost her election, Heller signed onto the bill last month. If Heller’s own bill is anything like Ayotte’s, it is likely to be a deal killer.*
Dating back to the Congressional review period for the Iran nuclear deal, more than 80 bills were introduced in the previous Congressional session to undermine Iran diplomacy or kill the final Iran nuclear deal. Ultimately, thanks to pressure from the Obama White House and relatively united Democratic support for the Iran deal, opponents of the deal were only able to pass an extension of the Iran Sanctions Act, which did not prevent the Executive Branch from continuing to comply with the deal. But with the new Congressional session, Iran hawks have wasted little time in re-introducing proposals to kill the Iran deal and push the U.S. and Iran toward war. Reporting continues to indicate that Congress will press ahead with new sanctions bills, including sanctions with a non-nuclear label. Congressional aides indicated to the Jerusalem Post that a series of votes are expected that appear directly intended to violate the nuclear accord.
None of this is unexpected, but when Donald Trump replaces Barack Obama as President, Congress will be firing with real bullets on Iran policy. There is no guarantee, as under Obama, that the President will veto legislation that would undercut the nuclear accord. Further, it is unclear whether Iran deal supporters will remain united in blocking measures that would undermine or violate the deal. There is a real chance that Congressional hawks will succeed in their efforts to push through poison pills that unravel the nuclear accord and push the U.S. and Iran back on the path toward war.
* (Update 1-6-17) As expected, the Heller bill is nearly identical to Ayotte's prior ballistic missile sanctions bill, meaning it is a clear deal killer. My colleague Tyler Cullis analyzed the Ayotte bill last year, which largely still applies to Heller's version. The only major difference is that it no longer includes an extension of the Iran Sanctions Act, which was passed separately last year.