Initial analyses of an Iran-sanctions bill introduced Thursday by Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., ran the gamut from so explosive that it threatens war with Iran—to so innocuous it allows lawmakers to achieve political objectives without jeopardizing negotiations.
The bill, which would allow the administration to have up to a year to ease sanctions while negotiating with Iran on a comprehensive agreement to prevent it from achieving nuclear-weapons capabilities, has an unclear outlook in the Senate.
On the pro side, Congress has routinely passed sanctions legislation with big bipartisan votes despite the objections of the administration. That's on top of the fact that the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act was introduced with 26 sponsors, split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, demonstrating that a broad swath of the Senate already backs the legislation.
On the flip side, the administration adamantly opposes legislation, which it argues could destroy diplomatic talks. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has so far shown little willingness to buck the administration on this priority, and several relevant senior Democrats in the Senate, like Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, and Banking Chairman Tim Johnson have argued that Congress should wait and give the administration room to negotiate.
A group of 10 Democratic committee chairs, including Johnson, Feinstein, and Levin, sent a letter to Reid this week arguing that "new sanctions would play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see negotiations fail" and pointing to an intelligence-community assessment that new sanctions would undermine prospects for a successful comprehensive agreement with Iran.
"Senator Reid is going to do what he can to protect the administration," said a former senior Democratic leadership aide, who said not to expect the bill to advance "any time soon."
Lawmakers pushing the bill argue that the number of supporters is growing and momentum is on their side. To wit, 14 members issued a joint statement in support of additional sanctions last month.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he expects the number of supporters to grow, building pressure on Reid.
"It has significant impact when you see that many bipartisan supporters; there is going to be enormous pressures on Senator Reid to schedule a vote, and we are going to keep pushing him," McCain said.
The bill appears intended to add the force of law to the interim agreement that the administration reached with Iran and the so-called P5+1 nations—Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany—last month. It gives the administration an initial six months to negotiate, which can be extended for up to a year. The sanctions would kick in if Iran violated the agreement during that time or if a final agreement failed to result in "the complete and verifiable termination of Iran's illicit nuclear weapons program."
"Right now it's very clear we are all in the corner of hoping we will get Iran to negotiate an agreement where they will dismantle their infrastructure that allows a breakout for nuclear weapons. That's our objective," said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who is cosponsoring the bill, in an interview.
"This legislation makes it clear—I think it's very similar to what the president said—that if Iran does not comply with the agreement, that not only will the sanctions be reimposed that are being eased, but they can expect to be further isolated."
The bill appears to offer a broad cross-section of lawmakers with ways to advance differing political aims.
Members who want to stick it to the administration can claim they did so, while others can argue they are simply laying out the administration's terms for an agreement and supporting its diplomatic efforts.
Cardin said his goal was to ensure that the negotiations with Iran lead to dismantling its nuclear-weapons capabilities.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said the bill is important because it lays out what Congress wants to see in a final agreement with Iran, with one united voice.
Other Republicans like Kirk, McCain, and Marco Rubio of Florida said they were focused on seeing the bill pass, with Kirk declaring it a form of "insurance policy" against Iran.
Even senators supporting sanctions legislation who have not signed on as cosponsors said they expect it to send a strong message to the Iranians.
"I hope it has a huge impact, because I hope we are able to pass it and we are able to put some significant sanctions on and let the Iranians know that Congress means business," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who is not an original cosponsor of the bill. "I think the negotiated agreement or the deal, so to speak, that the administration has laid out is very weak; I'm not sure that it will ever come to fruition, but I want the Iranians to know that Congress is really serious about this."
Some analysts said that the legislation was written "cleverly" to codify the terms of the interim agreement the administration has laid out.
"It doesn't pass any new sanctions unless certain contingencies are met," said Matthew Kroenig, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council.
"I don't think it will scuttle talks. Iran will scream bloody murder, I'm guessing. But I don't think it's enough to back out."
Other analysts said that lawmakers' efforts could backfire, end talks with Iran, and prove the administration's worst fears true.
"A measure like this is essentially throwing a lifeline to Iran's hard-liners, who have been very critical of the deal and are looking for any opportunity to scuttle it," said Matthew Duss, a policy analyst with the liberal Center for American Progress.
"It seriously undermines the talks.… Introducing this bill puts us on a path to one of two very negative outcomes: war, or Iranian nuclear weapons."
This article appears in the December 20, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.