Iran-Sanctions Bill Offers Something for Everyone

US Senator Tom Carper (L), D-DE, talks with US Senator Robert Menendez, D-NJ, before a confirmation hearing for the new Internal Revenue Service commissioner on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, December 10, 2013.   
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
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Stacy Kaper
Dec. 19, 2013, 2:52 p.m.

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.”

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