The US Senate voted unanimously on December 1 to extend the president’s authority to impose sanctions on Iran for another decade. Despite the fact that many restrictive measures have been suspended since the deal came into force, the vote would ensure that Washington can quickly snap back the sanctions if Iran violates its obligations under the agreement. Other parties to the Iran deal – Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the European Union – have largely lifted their sanctions against Iran, including prohibitions on financial transfers and oil purchases.
The extension makes it easy for President-elect Donald Trump to tear up the agreement, if he decides to do so. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said the extension of the sanctions would allow the new Trump administration greater leverage when dealing with Iran in the future. Secretary of State John Kerry will continue to sign sanctions waivers, but it will be up to Donald Trump to decide whether he wants to continue this policy. The waivers must be reissued every 120 to 180 days.
Republicans have been arguing for new sanctions on Iran over human rights violations, terrorism and the support of Hezbollah. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, says keeping the sanctions is critical. He wants the Congress to review the current policy on Iran.
The Iranian government described the Senate vote as a «violation» of the nuclear agreement. It also put the US at odds with Russia and other pertinent actors involved in the deal.
On December 2, the House of Representatives arming «vetted» rebels in Syria with portable anti-aircraft systems. The original House bill expressly prohibited the transfer of portable surface-to-air missiles to «any entity» in Syria. The Senate is expected to pass the new bill this month. Donald Trump has opposed the idea of US being dragged into the conflict. The Senate version made no mention of them. The new provision is tantamount to a policy recommendation for the president-elect.
On November 15, the House of Representatives passed the «Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act» (Resolution 5732) – the bill was widely seen as targeting Russia and Iran – calling for intensifying the already harsh sanctions on Syria, escalating efforts to press criminal charges against Syrian officials and assessing the imposition of a «no fly zone» inside Syria a very risky move, putting the US military in the position of shooting down Russian aircraft. Actually, the House voted for an act of war.
The votes took place at the time China has pledged its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad. Egypt has also openly expressed its support for the Syrian government. Turkey, by and large, has also softened its position towards the incumbent government of Syria. Turkey is reshaping the Syrian battlefield by edging closer to Russia.
It was reported on December 3 that at a meeting in Rome, US Secretary of State John Kerry made suggestions on Aleppo that were accepted by Russia. Moscow is ready to immediately send military officials and diplomats to Geneva to work out a joint plan of action for Aleppo in line with US proposals. In early October, Washington said it was suspending bilateral cooperation with Moscow, which was aimed at sustaining a ceasefire in Syria agreed upon on September 9, after months of negotiations.
Looks like the US Congress is doing its best to either provoke the incoming president into instigating tensions and thwart any attempts to achieve progress in the Middle East.
The same applies to the efforts to improve the relationship with Russia.
A provision in intelligence legislation going through the Congress envisions the creation of a new high-level body to «counter active measures by the Russian Federation to exert covert influence over peoples and governments». A powerful new committee across the security services will oppose Russian «destabilization measures and propaganda domestically and worldwide». The new committee is to meet on a regular basis and would be required to report to Congress steps it is taking «to counter active measures by Russia to exert covert influence.
The provision is contained in the texts of both the House and the Senate bills, both of which have won the approval of the respective intelligence committees. Another provision of the bill limits the movements of Russian diplomats based in the US to a maximum of 25 miles from their official posts unless the FBI notifies the Congress that it does not have record of wrongdoing by those individuals. The measure contradicts the announced intention of Donald Trump to improve the relations with Russia. The bill passed the House on November 30. The Senate is expected to vote on the intelligence bill before the end of this year's session.
On December 3, the House of Representatives approved the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), voting against military partnership with Russia. The bill, which must be endorsed by the Senate, conditionally prohibits spending money for any cooperation with Moscow, until it fulfills a number of conditions, including the improvement of relations with NATO.
A lengthy section of the bill is dedicated to «matters relating» to Russia, laying out a set of conditions, which the Defense Department would have to abide by dealing with Moscow. The legislation bans using funds «for bilateral military-to-military cooperation between the governments of the United States and Russia» unless the DOD proves to Congress that Moscow «ceased its occupation of Ukrainian territory and its aggressive activities that threaten the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization». the Act «permits a waiver under specified conditions».
The bill limits funds that the DOD can dedicate to enable confidence-building measures, such as surveillance flights by Russia over US territories or anywhere covered by the Open Skies Treaty. The Defense Department would have to provide Congress with a «specified certification and report» to allow Moscow a surveillance flight or certification event of an aircraft equipped with an upgraded sensor.
With all the scandals regarding corruption and inability to implement the long-promised reforms by Kiev, the bill calls for military assistance and cooperation with Ukraine without any strings attached! The Senate will vote on the bill next week.
Senators are pledging to take a firm line with Russia next year, setting up a potential conflict with the incoming president. Democratic US Senator Ben Cardin, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is working on a «comprehensive» bill aimed at 'responding' to Russia in Ukraine and Syria, and to alleged Russian interference in the US presidential election. The move is supported by senior Republican lawmakers, including Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both lawmakers known for the hawkish positions on Moscow.
Powerful forces in the US Congress are working hard to go make all the efforts to achieve any positive results – be it the Middle East, or the bilateral relationship with Russia – down the drain. They are trying to do their best to complicate the efforts to launch cooperation with other pertinent actors in Syria. They evidently pursue the goal of hindering any steps Donald Trump might take to normalize the relationship with Russia, despite the fact that this agenda was supported by American voters. It all goes to show how hard it is to achieve progress overcoming the obstacles created by hawkish lawmakers that enjoy great clout in Congress.