New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez — who along with Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk has been leading the charge for a new Iran sanctions measure that the Obama administration has warned could undermine ongoing multilateral negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program — writes in the Washington Post on Friday that his “Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act” is just an “insurance policy“:
The proposed legislation is a clarifying action. It allows all sides to negotiate in certainties and provides one year of space for the parties to continue talking. It spells out precisely the consequences should the agreement fail. This should motivate Iranians to negotiate honestly and seriously.
At the same time, these prospective sanctions play a positive and reinforcing role in negotiations. The big winner is the administration. Its ability to pursue a diplomatic path is enhanced by being able to communicate this position in its negotiations with Iran.
Comprehensive critiques of the bill have already been offered by the Arms Control Association and Colin Kahl of the Center for a New American Security, so I’ll just focus here on the arguments Senator Menendez offers on its behalf, none of which are very good.
Menendez offers a number of recent Iranian actions that he believes demonstrates the need for the new sanctions measure. While some of these are indeed troubling and provocative, it helps to try and understand them in the context of Iranian politics, in which hawkish elements are asserting themselves against what they perceive as President Hassan Rohani’s administration displaying “weakness” at the nuclear negotiating table.
For example, Menendez notes that “Iranian lawmakers have proposed legislation to enrich uranium up to 60 percent, well beyond any potential use for peaceful purposes.” But, as noted in the article Menendez himself cites, this legislation was promulgated by Iranian hardliners specifically as a response to Menendez’s own sanctions bill. Further, a spokesman for the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Affairs committee defended the legislation by saying that it was “[a]imed at giving an upper hand to our government and the negotiating team … It will allow the government to continue our nuclear program if the Geneva deal fails.” In other words, precisely the same defense Menendez offers for his own legislation. It’s not hard to see how this sort of action, counter-action, and counter-counter-action could quickly disintegrate the small amount of trust that has been painstakingly achieved at Geneva.
While noting Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s warning that “the entire deal is dead” if prospective sanctions are passed by Congress, Menendez simply dismisses this possibility. But the U.S. intelligence community does not. A December 10, 2013 assessment stated bluntly that “new sanctions would undermine the prospects for a successful comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran.”
Menendez writes that the new measure is necessary now because “[p]assing anything in Congress takes time. Writing regulations and implementing sanctions takes even longer, and enforcement of sanctions is an ongoing process.” But Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD), Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, has said that new sanctions could be passed within 24 hours. And since the new sanctions in Menendez’s bill wouldn’t be implemented immediately anyway, his argument about how long such implementation would take is irrelevant.
The fact of the matter is, the U.S. already has an insurance policy built into the Geneva agreement’s Joint Plan of Action (JPA). If Iran reneges on any of its commitments, the limited sanctions relief it has been granted will be reversed. It’s also worth noting that the sanctions relief granted in the JPA actually amounts to less than the continually compounding impact of other ongoing sanctions not covered in the JPA.
None of the reasons offered by Senator Menendez for the new bill stand up to any genuine scrutiny. The risks, on the other hand, are extremely high. Menendez insists that the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act “is hardly a march to war,” but history shows that measures not conceived as such can effectively serve that purpose. No one predicted at the time that the Iraq Liberation Act, which was promoted as an effort to support democratic movements in Iraq, would within five years result in a U.S. invasion and occupation of that country. In retrospect, it was a significant step in that direction. Menendez and other supporters of the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act may not desire a war with Iran, but there’s no question that it makes that outcome more likely.