Members of Congress knew the Iran nuclear deal came with strings attached. They just didn't know how many.
When the administration presented the agreement to Congress, lawmakers were told that new sanctions on Iran would violate the deal. Now the administration is trying to sidestep a recently passed provision to tighten rules on visas for those who have visited Iran.
Since the accord was struck last summer, the U.S. emphasis on complying with its end of the deal has publicly eclipsed its efforts to pressure Iran. In that time, Iranian authorities have detained two American dual nationals and sentenced a third on what most observers say are trumped up espionage charges. Iran's military has conducted two missile tests, one of which the U.N. said violated sanctions, and engaged in a new offensive with Russia in Syria to shore up the country's dictator, Bashar al- Assad.
In the latest example of the U.S. effort to reassure Iran, the State Department is scrambling to confirm to Iran that it won't enforce new rules that would increase screening of Europeans who have visited Iran and plan to come to America. There is concern the new visa waiver provisions, included in the omnibus budget Congress passed last week, would hinder business people seeking to open up new ventures in Iran once sanctions are lifted.
U.S. officials confirmed over the weekend that Secretary of State John Kerry sent his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, a letter promising to use executive powers to waive the new restrictions on those who have visited Iran but are citizens of countries in the Visa Waiver Program. These officials also told us that they have told Iranian diplomats that, because they are not specific to Iran, the new visa waiver provisions do not violate the detailed sequence of steps Iran and other countries committed to taking as part of the agreement. Even so, the State Department is promising to sidestep the new rule.
At issue is a provision that would require travelers who visit certain countries -- including Iran, Sudan, Syria and Iraq -- to apply at a U.S. Embassy for a visa before coming to the U.S., even if they are from a country for which such visas would normally be waived.
House staffers who spoke with us say Iran was included for good reason, because it remains on the U.S. list of state of sponsors of terrorism for its open support for Hezbollah and Hamas. The White House did not object until the Iranian government told the administration last week that the bill would violate the nuclear agreement, according to correspondence on these negotiations shared with us.
Since 2013, when the open negotiations with Iran began, the Obama administration has repeatedly told Congress that additional sanctions on the Islamic Republic would wreck negotiations. The resulting agreement obligates the West to lift sanctions in exchange for more transparency and limitations on Iran's nuclear program. Iran and the White House seem to be interpreting "lift sanctions" more broadly than others expected.
"If the United States Congress cannot implement a more secure visa procedure for those who travel to state sponsors of terrorism like Iran, then the Iran deal ties the hands of lawmakers to a greater extent than even deal critics feared," Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an expert in Iran sanctions, told us.
Over the weekend, Zarif said in an interview with al- Monitor that Iran's inclusion on the list might violate the agreement. Zarif called the new restrictions "absurd" because no one connected to Iran was involved in the attacks in San Bernardino and Paris. He also said the provision "sends a very bad signal to the Iranians that the U.S. is bent on hostile policy toward Iran, no matter what."
The issue is particularly sensitive for the State Department because Iran has yet to implement its side of the deal: The new transparency and limitations on the nuclear program are to begin in the coming weeks. State Department officials have said they fear more hardline elements of the regime in Tehran are trying to scuttle the deal for political advantage over President Hassan Rouhani, whose administration negotiated the accord.
In February, Iran will have parliamentary elections and elections for the powerful Guardian Council, the committee of clerics that would choose the next supreme leader of Iran after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dies. If anti-deal elements win those elections, the future of the nuclear deal will be dim.
These factors explain why Kerry has been willing to overlook Iran's own provocations while trying to mitigate what Iran sees as provocations from the U.S. Congress. They also explain why Iran seems so intent to provoke the U.S. at the moment it's supposed to implement the deal to which it just agreed.
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