Iran Nuclear Deal Restricts U.S.
More than Congress Knew
By Eli Lake and Josh Rogin
December 22, 2015
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
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
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
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 assembly of experts, 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.