Only a few hours after the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States plus Germany) and Iran announced their decision to extend the validity of the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) until July, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) issued a statement calling on Congress to "take up new bipartisan sanctions legislation" against Iran. The Israel lobby contends that it is "essential" for Congress to pass new Iran sanctions to send Tehran a message now that the deadline for nuclear talks has been extended.
Likewise, reacting to the news of the extension, hawks in Congress also revealed their plan to impose more sanctions on Iran.“Now more than ever, it’s critical that Congress enacts sanctions” said Republican Senator Mark Kirk. “This seven-month extension should be used to tighten the economic vice on Tehran,” affirmed House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, advising President Obama to impose new sanctions before resuming the negotiations. Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kelly Ayotte also issued their own statement shortly after the announcement in Vienna stating that "this latest extension of talks should be coupled with increased sanctions."
But can Congress really impose new sanctions on Iran during this period without breaching the United States' obligations under international law?
The answer is no. Amidst the sabre-rattling frenzy, one key point seems to be misread by Iran detractors in Congress as well as by the bulk of the media: legally speaking, Iran and the P5+1 have not extended the "deadline" of the negotiations per se, as commonly reported. Rather, they have extended the "validity" of JPOA until July. This means that the United States (i.e. Congress) is legally bound to respect the terms of the JPOA at least until July and must therefore refrain from enacting any new sanction legislation or take any measure that would defeat the object and purpose of the agreement. Indeed, the JPOA is a binding international agreement which clearly states that "The US Administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions" as long as the agreement remains in effect.
Furthermore, it is important to recall that not only are new sanctions prohibited under the JPOA (something that the White House fully acknowledges itself), but that any similar measure—like a dormant sanction legislation that would spring into effect upon Iran's refusal to comply with P5+1 demands—is also considered a breach of legal obligations in this context.
AIPAC's call on Congress to take up new legislation against Iran and the hawks' campaign to impose new sanctions during the course of the extension are nothing short of urging Congress to commit an illegal act.
The JPOA was negotiated by representatives of the President and has entered into force upon signature. Therefore, according to a well-established customary principle of international law, even in absence of formal ratification by Congress, the United States remains obliged to refrain from partaking in acts that would defeat its object and purpose (see Article 18 of Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, 1969). It should be needless to remind that one of the stated purposes of the JPOA is to arrive at a point where all UN Security Council, multilateral, and national nuclear-related sanctions will be "comprehensively lifted."
In short, AIPAC's call on Congress to take up new legislation against Iran and the hawks' campaign to impose new sanctions during the course of the extension are nothing short of urging Congress to commit an illegal act; doing so would jeopardize the credibility of the United States on the international plane and frustrate its European allies whom have also put their signature at the bottom of the JPOA.
The best course of action for the United States is to remain faithful to the negotiations and not breach the confidence of other negotiating partners (including Iran) with unlawful acts.