Administration Urges States to Lift Sanctions on Iran
By Eli Lake
April 18, 2016
After lifting international and federal sanctions related
to Iran's nuclear program, the Barack Obama administration is turning its
attention to state governments.
On April 8, the State Department's lead coordinator for
Iran nuclear implementation, Stephen Mull, sent letters to the governors of all
50 states as well as some local officials. He asked them to reconsider any
laws on the books that called for divesting state funds, such as pensions,
from businesses interacting with Iran's economy, or laws that would deny
contracts to companies that do business with Iran.
The State Department has signaled this might be coming.
Over the summer, Secretary of State John Kerry told
Congress he would be asking states not to interfere with the
implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which relaxes some
And over the last month, Iran's leaders have complained
they aren't getting everything they're owed under the nuclear agreement. On
Friday, the head of Iran's central bank was in Washington, where he delivered a
speech warning that the deal -- known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan
of Action, or JCPOA -- would be in danger if Iran didn't see more economic
"Some states have adopted laws designed to incentivize
Iran to change its behavior in certain ways," Mull wrote in a letter to
Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, which I obtained over the weekend. "If that
is the case in your state, I would urge you to consider whether the
implementation of the JCPOA, which verifiably ensures that Iran's nuclear
program is and will remain exclusively peaceful, addresses the underlying
concerns with Iran articulated in your state's law."
John Kirby, the State Department's spokesman, told me in a
statement that similar letters had been sent out to the governors of all 50
states. He said the Iran agreement committed the U.S. to encourage state and
local governments to review their sanctions against Iran. While Kirby was
careful to say that the agreement itself -- which was never submitted to the
Senate as a treaty -- doesn't affect these state and local laws, he did say that
changes to U.S. foreign policy as a result of the agreement might.
"As part of the JCPOA, the United States committed to
encourage state and local governments to take account of the changes in U.S.
policy as a result of the JCPOA, which could impact state and local laws and
regulations," Kirby said.
This is where the State Department has leverage. In 2000,
the Supreme Court overturned Massachusetts sanctions against Burma (now Myanmar)
on the grounds that it interfered with the president's constitutional authority
to conduct foreign policy.
In this sense, the nudge from Mull is important. More than
two dozen states have laws on the books that call for divestment or prohibit
granting contracts to entities that invest in areas of Iran's economy like
its mining or energy sector. Now that it's U.S. policy to assure foreign banks
and businesses that they're safe to invest in some segments of Iran's economy,
it's unclear whether the state divestment laws and sanctions are
Defenders of the state-level sanctions say they shouldn't
be lifted because many of them were imposed not only because of Iran's nuclear
program, but also its human-rights record, development of ballistic
missiles and support for terrorism.
"These state laws are an essential part of the
non-nuclear sanctions architecture designed to both deter Iranian illicit
behavior and to safeguard pension funds from the risk associated with entering
Iran's economy," Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for
Defense of Democracies, and a leading expert in Washington on Iranian sanctions,
Iran's missile work and support for terrorism is
particularly relevant now. Obama himself acknowledged
this on April 1 at the conclusion of the nuclear security summit in
Washington. He said that Iran had complied with the "letter" of the
JCPOA, but was not complying with its spirit. "When they launched ballistic
missiles with slogans calling for the destruction of Israel, that makes
businesses nervous," Obama said. "There is some geopolitical risk that
is heightened when they see that taking place." Add to this the fact that
the Financial Action Task Force, the international body that tracks money
laundering and terrorist financing, in February designated
Iran a country of exceptional concern.
For these reasons, early reaction from some Republicans in
Congress to Mull's letters has been harsh.
Representative Mike Pompeo, a Republican from Kansas, told
me that he expected the letters to be an opening salvo from the Obama
administration to compel the states to end sanctions on Iran in the president's
final months in office. "You send out the sugar-coated letter first,"
he said. "Then you send out a more threatening, lawyerly letter after the
states don't do what you want."
Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois and the
chairman of the Senate Banking Subcommittee on National Security and
International Trade and Finance, feels much the same way. He told me, "The
Iranian regime should not get a penny's worth of additional sanctions relief
until it first stops supporting terrorists, developing ballistic missiles,
engaging in human-rights abuses, and threatening Israel and U.S.
national-security interests in the Middle East."
As for Governor Rauner, it looks for now that he won't be
taking Mull's advice. When asked for a response to Mull's letter, Rauner's
office pointed me to a statement from
the governor's spokeswoman back in August.
At the time, she said, "Iran remains the world's
leading state sponsor of terrorism and Illinois law would not prevent the
implementation of the nuclear agreement now under congressional review. Illinois
taxpayers should not be asked to subsidize Iranian terrorism." Eight
months later, it looks like Illinois taxpayers will keep their sanctions on
Iran, despite requests from the Obama administration.