Senate Sanctions Push Plays Divisive Role in Iran Nuclear Haggling

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, poses with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton meeting on Friday with Iran's foreign minister. Stalled attempts by U.S. senators to advance sanctions legislation targeting Iran reveal deep divides in Washington over whether the proposals would pressure Tehran to curtail its atomic activities, according to experts.
National Journal
Diane Barnes, Global Security Newswire
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Diane Barnes, Global Security Newswire
Nov. 8, 2013, 11:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — U.S. sen­at­ors’ stalled at­tempts to ad­vance le­gis­la­tion cre­at­ing new sanc­tions on Ir­an il­lus­trate deep di­vides in Wash­ing­ton over wheth­er such eco­nom­ic pun­ish­ment would com­pel Tehran to cur­tail its atom­ic activ­it­ies, ana­lysts said.

Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials and sup­port­ers are warn­ing that pun­it­ive pro­pos­als against Ir­an floated on Cap­it­ol Hill would un­der­cut the pos­sib­il­ity of a deal, in part by threat­en­ing en­force­ment of broad­er in­ter­na­tion­al sanc­tions they say are lead­ing to pro­gress in resolv­ing an in­ter­na­tion­al nuc­le­ar stan­doff with the Middle East­ern na­tion.

Sen­at­ors this week said they will try to ad­vance meas­ures in­clud­ing a pro­pos­al from Sen­at­or Bob Cork­er (R-Tenn.) to pre­vent the ad­min­is­tra­tion from waiv­ing cer­tain pen­al­ties on al­lies. Sen­at­or Lind­sey Gra­ham (R-S.C.) also wants to in­sert le­gis­lat­ive lan­guage cre­at­ing new Ir­an sanc­tions in the de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill that the Sen­ate may de­bate this month.

However, the Demo­crat­ic-led Sen­ate has delayed ad­van­cing new sanc­tions le­gis­la­tion, in­clud­ing a meas­ure be­fore the Sen­ate Bank­ing Com­mit­tee, as Obama of­fi­cials have pled with them to wait while dip­lo­mat­ic talks con­tin­ue. The Re­pub­lic­an-run House passed sanc­tions le­gis­la­tion in Ju­ly, and mem­bers have been frus­trated the Sen­ate has not ac­ted yet.

Some ana­lysts, though, ar­gue such eco­nom­ic pen­al­ties against Ir­an would un­der­mine ef­forts to ex­tract atom­ic con­ces­sions from Ir­an.

“Cre­at­ing pres­sure is not the end in it­self,” former U.S. State De­part­ment of­fi­cial Mark Fitzpatrick told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire. “The pur­pose is to try to solve this Ir­a­ni­an nuc­le­ar prob­lem, and sanc­tions are only good if they also can be lif­ted.”

Dip­lo­mat­ic lead­ers from Ir­an and six oth­er na­tions met in Geneva for high-level talks about po­ten­tially eas­ing cer­tain eco­nom­ic steps against Ir­an “¦ U.S. Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry joined the meet­ing with rep­res­ent­at­ives from Ir­an, China, France, Ger­many, Rus­sia and the United King­dom.

The United States is eye­ing a deal, de­signed to build trust between the sides in the talks, that could scale back part of Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram.

In ex­change for curbs on fin­an­cial pen­al­ties, Tehran could agree to an ar­range­ment “that stops Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram from mov­ing for­ward … and that po­ten­tially rolls part of it back,” a seni­or Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial told re­port­ers on Wed­nes­day. Wash­ing­ton and five oth­er gov­ern­ments are look­ing for con­crete as­sur­ances that the Per­sian Gulf power’s ci­vil­ian atom­ic pro­gram is not serving as cov­er for de­vel­op­ment of a nuc­le­ar-arms cap­ab­il­ity.

Still, the talk of new sanc­tions has not let up in Con­gress, and meas­ures such as Gra­ham’s could ad­vance as soon as next week.

An ad­voc­ate of new U.S. sanc­tions, mean­while, sug­ges­ted that pro­pos­als un­der con­sid­er­a­tion in Con­gress could be a less dip­lo­mat­ic­ally risky way for the United States to main­tain pres­sure on Ir­an than if the ad­min­is­tra­tion had to rely on ex­ist­ing sanc­tions. That is be­cause the ad­min­is­tra­tion must choose how to im­ple­ment cer­tain­ing ex­ist­ing sanc­tions, while pro­pos­als in the Sen­ate would be less flex­ible.

If Wash­ing­ton had “to sanc­tion com­pan­ies [in] sens­it­ive coun­tries like China, Rus­sia and Tur­key, and from al­lies like Ger­many … that will be more of a ma­jor stress on the sanc­tions co­ali­tion than new le­gis­la­tion that keeps most com­pan­ies in line without re­quir­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion to pun­ish them,” ac­cord­ing to Mark Dubowitz, who heads the Found­a­tion for De­fense of Demo­cra­cies.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials last week urged Sen­ate Bank­ing Com­mit­tee mem­bers to re­frain from giv­ing im­me­di­ate, form­al con­sid­er­a­tion to a bill to black­list Ir­an’s min­ing and con­struc­tion sec­tors. No markup has yet been sched­uled.

In Wed­nes­day’s back­ground brief­ing with re­port­ers, the seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion ar­gued that new le­gis­lat­ive sanc­tions would com­mu­nic­ate an un­will­ing­ness in Wash­ing­ton to com­prom­ise with Tehran.

Speak­ing one day ahead of the start of this week’s talks, the in­sider said Ir­an has “be­gun ser­i­ous ne­go­ti­ations” with the five per­man­ent U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil mem­ber na­tions and Ger­many.

By im­pos­ing new sanc­tions at this time, Wash­ing­ton would com­mu­nic­ate that it “isn’t ser­i­ous” about reach­ing a ne­go­ti­ated set­tle­ment to the dis­pute, the of­fi­cial said in a Wed­nes­day back­ground brief­ing with re­port­ers.

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