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The House just voted to punish Iran — but not because of its nuclear program

They’re targeting its ballistic missiles. And Iran won’t be happy.

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The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill that would hit Iran with a fresh batch of sanctions for its ballistic missile program in a vote held Thursday morning. The bill now moves to the Senate for its approval; if it becomes law, it would further strain already tenuous US-Iran relations but not outright violate the terms of the nuclear deal with Iran.

The House bill would require the Trump administration to identify companies and individuals, Iranian and non-Iranian alike, who are supplying the ballistic program. The sanctions options would include, among other things, freezing the US assets of suppliers, restricting their travel to the US, and banning imports from them.

Iran’s ballistic missile program isn’t covered by the Iran nuclear deal, which means these sanctions don’t violate the terms of the deal. But along with other recent sanctions on Iran’s foreign policy operations, they represent an escalation of pressure that could cause the country to try to retaliate against the US.

The sanctions won’t blow up the Iran deal

The nuclear deal with Iran — which imposes strict limits on Iran’s nuclear development in exchange for lifting international sanctions on the country — has been in a precarious state since earlier this month. A US law called the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) requires the president to recertify that the deal is in US national security interests every 90 days; Trump declined to make this certification by the law’s October 15 deadline.

This triggered a 60-day window during which Congress has the ability to reimpose old sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program in an expedited fashion. Reimposing them would effectively destroy the deal.

These new sanctions wouldn’t unravel the deal. That agreement was strictly related to nuclear issues — ballistic missiles weren’t covered.

They would instead fall into the same category as another US financial punishment for Iran — the Trump administration’s October 13 sanctions against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the powerful security and paramilitary organization that is key to Iran’s regional influence.

They also fall in the same camp as another sanctions bill that the House passed on Wednesday, which penalizes Iran for supporting the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

The idea with these measures is to attempt to curb Iran’s ability to fund, support, and sponsor proxy groups in countries like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen that oppose US interests.

Experts say that these kinds sanctions infuriate Iran. After the sanctions against the IRGC were passed, Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department adviser on Iran, told me she expected to see blowback. “I think there is going to be some kind of retaliation from Iran,” she said.

It is possible, though, that new sanctions won’t have the bite they’re expected to. Foreign Policy reported on Thursday that the State Department has eliminated the Coordinator for Sanctions Policy office. An office that was headed by a “a veteran ambassador-rank diplomat with at least five staff” has been replaced with just one mid-level official. That could, in turn, make it harder for the administration to actually administer sanctions.

Trump wants sanctions that make the Iran deal tougher. That’s not happening — yet.

The other big question these days is whether Congress will choose to pass a bill that would make the Iran deal a better deal for the US in Trump’s eyes.

Trump has said, for example, that he wants Congress to look at how the US can potentially get tougher about the Iran deal’s sunset clauses, which put expiration dates on some of the deal’s restrictions on Iranian nuclear activity. He wants Congress to pass a measure that would allow the US to automatically reimpose sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program if it crosses certain thresholds in its nuclear activity that technically are currently allowed under the deal during its wind-down. The sanctions that the House just passed would not do that either.

For those in Congress who want the deal to stay intact, they have good reason to try to do something that makes Trump feel that the deal has been improved, given his threats to terminate the agreement unilaterally — something he can do at any point — if that doesn’t happen.

"In the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated," Trump said during his decertification speech.

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