A group of leading senators on Thursday issued a letter slamming their colleagues’ efforts to pass new and further sanctions on Iran, standing with the Obama administration’s efforts to come to a final accord with Tehran over its nuclear program.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, filed the ‘‘Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013″ on Thursday along with twenty-five other co-sponsors to place a set of new sanctions on Iran in six months’ time. Ten chairs of Senate committees, including some of the most powerful in the august body, signed onto a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) urging him to delay any introduction of Menendez’s — or any other — bill that could derail the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) that Iran and the international community agreed to in November.
“If Iran fails at anytime to abide by the terms of the JPA, or the JPA is not succeeded by a final long-term agreement that verifiably ensures that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely for peaceful purposes, Congress should promptly consider new sanctions legislation,” the letter reads. “However, at this time, as negotiatons are ongoing, we believe that new sanctions would play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see the negotiations fail.” As evidence, the chairs site an unclassified intelligence community assessment from earlier this month, which states that “new sanctions would undermine the prospects for a successful comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran.”
“Thus, we respectfully request to be consulted prior to any proposed unanimous consent or other agreement to consider any motion, amendment, or other legislation in the Senate related to Iran sanctions,” the senators conclude. Sens. Tim Johnson (D-SD), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Carl Levin (D-MI), Barbara Milkulski (D-MD), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV), Tom Carper (D-DE), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Tom Harkin (D-IA) all signed on to the letter. These eight make up the heads of the Senate Banking, Intelligence, Armed Services, Appropriations, Environment, Commerce, Homeland Security, Judiciariy, Energy, and Health committees respectively.
Under the terms of the Menendez bill, first reported in Foreign Policy, an extremely high bar would be placed on the terms under which a final deal could be reached. Obama’s ability to waive any existing sanctions would only be allowed should Iran be banned from any enrichment of uranium whatsoever, an outcome most experts say is “unrealistic.” “Congress could also block Obama’s waivers by passing a ‘joint resolution of disapproval’ against a final deal,” Foreign Policy notes. The bill would also have Obama’s ability to waive sanctions expire after a maximum of one year should the final deal not meet the Senate’s standards.
Since the first step deal between the P5+1 — the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, France, China, and Germany — and Iran several weeks ago, the administration has been working to delay further sanctions that would prevent a final agreement from being reached. Numerous administration officials have briefed members of Congress on the extremely high chance that Iran will simply walk away from the negotiating table in the event of new sanctions, as some have argued that even delayed sanctions violate the spirit of the Geneva deal. Even the addition of new designations under existing sanctions nearly caused the talks on implementing the interim agreement to collapse, as Iran spent several days boycotting the forum before returning on Thursday.
That Menendez and other Democrats decided to move forward with introducing the bill has seriously displeased the White House, which had harsh words for the senators and representatives trying to get new sanctions to pass. “Members of Congress pressing for this bill are effectively choosing to close the door on diplomacy, making it far more likely that we’ll be left only with a military option,” one senior administration official told the Washington Post’s Greg Sergeant. “You close the door on diplomacy, and you’re left only with a choice between a possible military option or Iran steadily advancing its nuclear program.”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said on Thursday that Obama would veto the new sanctions measure if passed by the Senate.
Critics of the bill believe that its passage, even if the sanctions contained within it don’t kick in until the negotiating window had closed, would violate the terms of the interim agreement the two sides agreed to in November. “This is bill is a vote for war over diplomacy that will kill negotiations,” National Iranian-American Council Policy Directory Jamal Abdi said in a statement. “It is the ultimate gift from hardliners in the U.S. to hardliners in Iran who oppose a negotiated solution. There is no better way to undercut American diplomats and Iranian moderates than to introduce a bill that violates the terms of the nuclear agreement, sets prohibitive preconditions for any final deal, and pledges support Israeli military strikes.”
“If a bill is introduced, the significance would be that it would essentially be a vote of no confidence in this deal, and that would be very damaging,” CAP expert Matthew Duss told the National Journal. “If a bill is not introduced, the significance would be that the administration has been successful in holding off a challenge to the deal.”
Reid has effectively prevented any new sanctions legislation from passing before the end of the year, as he has closed off the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to new amendments, leaving Menendez and his fellow co-sponsors to file their separate bill.