Congress’s good intentions may be taking us down a dangerous road

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While Donald Trump wraps up his first trip overseas at the NATO Summit in Brussels, and reporters in Washington continue to chase any new development in the Russia investigation, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee quietly marked up a bill that could put the Iran deal at risk.

Supporters of the “Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017” (S.722) will claim that it provides more tools for the United States to counter Iran’s support for terrorism in the region. It sounds strong.

{mosads}Members of Congress are seeking to disrupt Iran’s capabilities to aid violent extremism and destabilize the Middle East, and at first glance, it appears this bill attempts to do just that.  

But in reality it is a symbolic move that would accomplish little other than delivering on a political talking point to be “tough on Iran,” while carrying with it risks that Iran and other signatories to the deal will interpret it as signaling a lessening of the United States’ commitment to the deal.

What the bill does do, particularly because it has garnered bipartisan support from well-intentioned senators, is to provide political cover for the president’s presumed approach to the Middle East: put America on the side of “friendlier” Sunni nations and use Iran as a convenient foil, whatever the cost.

The bill, as reported out of committee, would encourage the U.S. government to treat the entirety of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – Iran’s most powerful security group that maintains large control over the economy and political scene – as a terrorist group. This is a solely political move because it accomplishes nothing new – Iran is already designated as a state sponsor of terrorism and the illegitimate businesses that benefit the IRGC are already sanctioned by the United States and restricted from the international marketplace.

The problem is this bill would also increase the legitimacy with which the IRGC’s hardline voices within Iran are regarded because it gives credence to their assertions that trusting the West in general and the U.S. in particular is a mistake. Since the bill empowers these hardliners without actually asserting new financial pressures on the IRGC, it may put our troops in the region in danger. As retired U.S. Army officer and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan Ron Leach wrote, we now have “tenuous synergistic efforts in Iraq” to combat ISIS where our troops must essentially fight alongside IRGC forces. Antagonizing Iran could backfire on those service members.

This designation also signals to our European allies and other signatories of the deal, many of whom are meeting with President Trump today, that the United States does not welcome the opportunity to work with Iran on other non-nuclear issues. As discussed earlier this week, many architects of the nuclear deal believe “[b]olstering this administration’s instinct to confront Iran…risks isolating the United States, not Iran, and replaces a stable equilibrium on Iran’s nuclear program with the renewed prospect of escalation.”

It is easy to forget that just a few years ago, Iran was only two to three months from accumulating the fissile material necessary to construct a nuclear weapon. Today, their nuclear program is subject to the most rigorous monitoring and verification regime in history.

Even President Trump has acknowledged Iran is abiding by the nuclear deal by reissuing an Iran sanctions waiver before he left on his trip. And we saw senators work hard today to adjust the bill to be JCPOA-compliant, because they recognize that the JCPOA is working.

As former Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman recently said at a Cato event on the future of the Iran deal, “Why risk the [Iran deal] for a bill that does nothing that is going to arguably undermine [it]? It is just not worth it.”

Iran just reelected a president who negotiated the Iran deal, who is open to establishing relations with many of our allies and recently stated he is receptive to working with the United States to address the core issues that would allow the United States to lift other non-nuclear sanctions.

This bill is likely to send a message to Iran, and the rest of the signatories of the agreement, that the United States is not interested in a diplomatic approach to other bilateral and multilateral issues we face with Iran. Congress should think twice before supporting a bill that is not in keeping with a clear foreign policy approach and which validates the White House’s stance in welcoming  confrontation with Iran.

While we have a long road to travel and a lot of work to do with partners like the IAEA to ensure that Iran remains in compliance with the deal, it will pay off in benefits to our security and the security of the region. We must simultaneously address other threats coming out of Iran, but at a moment when Iranians have shown a clear preference for diplomatic engagement on these problems, Congress should take great care when considering legislation that could help legitimize the antagonism and isolation that this administration seems to be embracing.

Jen Psaki was the former White House Communications Director under President Obama. She is also a member of the advisory council for Diplomacy Works.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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