US embarks on policy to box in Iran but is careful not to touch nuclear pact
Washington - The United States is embarking on a tougher policy towards Iran but is careful not to touch the international nuclear deal with Tehran, despite warnings by US President Donald Trump that the agreement is in peril.
Following a speech by Trump that called for tougher measures to box in Iran and threatened to tear up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear accord is formally known, the US House of Representatives passed bills targeting Tehran’s support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Iranian missile programme. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for a decrease of Iranian influence over Iraq.
The clock is ticking for Congress to act after Trump refused to certify that Iran was in compliance with the JCPOA. Lawmakers have until mid-December to decide on fresh sanctions related to the nuclear accord, a step that could blow up the agreement. If Congress does not act, the agreement remains in place as it is.
“The House has taken two critical steps towards addressing the full range of threats Iran poses to the United States and our partners,” Republican Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.
In one measure, passed October 25 without opposition, the House called for sanctions to cut off Hezbollah from international financial aid and from support by “foreign states.” A second act was directed against Hezbollah’s alleged use of civilians as human shields. In a third decision, the House called on the European Union to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organisation.
The House later passed the Iran Ballistic Missiles and International Sanctions Enforcement Act, demanding sanctions against Iranian government agencies involved in the missile programme and against foreign countries, individuals or organisations that support it.
“These sanctions will squeeze Iranian and foreign companies, banks and individuals that support the Iranian regime’s illicit weapons programmes,” Royce said. “Iran must know that the United States will not tolerate its dangerous behaviour.”
Passage by the US Senate and Trump’s signature are necessary for the bills to become law.
A Hezbollah member of the Lebanese parliament said the United States was meddling in Lebanon’s internal affairs with the sanctions proposals. “The sanctions law… is a blatant interference in Lebanese internal affairs, a violation of its national sovereignty and an unacceptable targeting of the Lebanese people,” Hezbollah parliamentarian Hassan Fadlallah said in a televised statement quoted by the Reuters news agency.
As the bills passed through the House, Tillerson used a visit to the Gulf region, India and Pakistan to demand a withdrawal of Iran-backed forces from Iraq as the threat from the Islamic State (ISIS) was receding after a string of military defeats for the jihadists.
“Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home,” Tillerson said in Saudi Arabia, using an Arabic acronym for the extremist group.
For all the new pressure on Iran, the Trump administration is not challenging the JCPOA. Speaking in India, Tillerson made an explicit distinction between the nuclear agreement and other measures against Iran.
He said Washington’s Iran policy rested on three separate pillars. “One is dealing with the nuclear plan of action. The second important pillar of that policy, though, is to deal with [the Iranians’] other destabilising activities — their ballistic missile programmes, their export of arms to terrorist organisations and their destabilising export of foreign fighters, involvement in the revolution in Yemen, Syria and other places.” The third pillar was “support for moderate voices inside of Iran.”
US allies welcome the caution displayed by Washington despite Trump’s tough talk. “We can talk about all that,” said a senior European diplomat, referring to US concerns about the Iranian missile programme and Iran’s aggressive stance in the region, “but it has to be separate” from the JCPOA. “We can’t have a linkage between the JCPOA and other issues,” he said.
That approach is shared by former senior US officials. Leon Panetta, a former CIA director and defence secretary, called on the Trump administration to stick to the JCPOA despite the criticism levelled against the agreement.
The United States had signed the nuclear pact and should make clear “that we continue to enforce the agreement,” Panetta told a panel organised by the Hudson Institute, a conservative think-tank, in Washington. Walking away from the JCPOA would be disastrous, Panetta warned. “The worst thing you can do is break your word,” he said.
There is no plan for a move by Congress on new sanctions in connection with the Iran deal, Brian Fitzpatrick, a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, told the same panel. Calling the JCPOA a “bad decision,” he said: “The question is now: What is the best course of action?” Fitzpatrick said lawmakers needed “full and open hearings” to make that decision but no schedule for them has been announced.