by Dmitriy Shapiro
In a rare show of bipartisanship, a group of key senators presented legislation to toughen sanctions against Iran during the Senate’s final sessions before the holiday break. The bill aims to alleviate mistrust of Iran’s seriousness in negotiations aimed at dismantling their military nuclear program, by raising sanctions to ensure that the cost would be too high for Iran if negotiations fail. Yet, the bill’s supporters — including many senior Democrats — have drawn fire from the Obama administration claiming that new sanctions could derail current gains.
The Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act of 2013 (S. 1881), was drafted and presented on the Senate floor on Dec. 19 and received its second reading on Dec. 20 by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). The bill requires the Obama administration to maintain or re-apply any current economic sanctions, while providing additional sanctions if Iran fails to meet, or cheats, on the obligations in the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) its negotiators agreed to at the P5+1 conference in Geneva late November.
Also included are specific requirements negotiators must include for any final agreement to be acceptable to Congress, such as a complete end to Iranian nuclear enrichment and an end to ballistic tests over 500 miles.
The Obama administration moved aggressively to oppose it.
“We certainly don’t think it should be enacted,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said at a Dec. 19 press conference.
“And the reason why it should not and does not need to be enacted, is because if Iran does not comply with its obligations under the Joint Plan of Action … over the course of six months, we are very confident that we can work with Congress to very quickly pass new, effective sanctions,” Carney said.
The administration has said that any attempt by Congress to pass new sanctions would drain goodwill between the parties and may empower Iranian hardliners to succeed in scuttling the talks.
“We don’t think it will be enacted. If it were enacted, the president would veto it.” Carney said.
President Barack Obama also weighed in on the issue at his pre-holiday press conference on Dec. 12, when the bill was still being prepared.
“I’m not surprised that there’s been some talk from some members of Congress about new sanctions — I think the politics of trying to look tough on Iran are often good when you’re running for office or if you’re in office,” Obama said.
“But as president of the United States right now, who’s been responsible over the last four years, with the help of Congress, in putting together a comprehensive sanctions regime that was specifically designed to put pressure on them and bring them to the table to negotiate — what I’m saying to them, what I’ve said to the international community, and what I’ve said to the American people is let’s test it,” Obama said.
According to a senior Senate aide close to the legislation whose position does not allow on-the-record comments, the president’s remarks did not win him any allies on Capitol Hill. The aide told Washington Jewish Week that members of both houses are frustrated with the administration’s secretive negotiations, unwillingness to cooperate in congressional committee sessions and consistent efforts against congressional sanction legislations.
“This is an issue that Congress, on a bipartisan basis, has taken a very proactive role in,” the aide said. “If it wasn’t for the bipartisan action of Congress, we wouldn’t be where we are today, and frankly the president himself has said so. If it wasn’t for the sanctions that Congress passed over his own objections, Iran wouldn’t be under this economic pressure to want to negotiate.”
Making sure to emphasize that nobody in the Senate wished that the administration fail in its negotiations, the aide said that many members, including those from the president’s own party, believe this intrusion is necessary pursuant to what they believe to be this administration’s tarnished credibility when dealing with Iran.
Additionally, the result of the Geneva conference was particularly troubling to Congress, according to the aide, because of the widespread view that the resulting JPA — heralded by Secretary of State John Kerry following the Geneva conference as a significant breakthrough — amounted to not much more than a joint press release. Congress feels it needs to make sure it isn’t left out of the conversation and that such legislation is necessary to hold the administration accountable.
“It’s so ludicrous when you even say it out loud. We are now negotiating how to implement this plan, which is actually the real negotiation,” the aide said. “They’ve totally shut out congress. They won’t even answer questions about it. They won’t acknowledge the fact that there is no actual deal.”
The aide said that the bill was designed to appeal to both parties specifically because it takes a tough stance demanded by Republicans, while having no effect on sanctions for six months and granting the president options to put off these new sanctions for up to a year to allow negotiations to proceed.
But the threat of a veto or an outlining of the possible consequence has not shaken the resolve of the senators, who see history and public opinion on their side — as seen in a number of recent polls showing a plurality of Americans favoring additional Iran sanctions, and a majority of Americans distrusting Iran’s motives.
Iran sanctions expert and executive director of The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Mark Dubowitz, told WJW that this back and forth between Congress and the administration is not unusual on the Iran issue. Administrations past and present have resented congressional interference in foreign policy, but in this case the senators feel confident that their historically unrelenting push for tougher sanctions has yielded the desired results, which could only be strengthened with more sanctions.
“There is proof that it has been tough measures that got Iran to the table,” Dubowitz said. “So I think the Hill feels that they are an equal partner on this issue and deserve that kind of consideration as the administration engages in these very complicated and obviously very critical negotiations.”
Since the JPA has not yet gone into effect, extending the six month window for negotiations while creating relief for Iran’s battered economy, Dubowitz says that Iran has already won a victory, even though most sanctions technically remain in place. “Market psychology,” Dubowitz said, has already shifted from fear to greed, from despair to hope, and helped lift Iran’s economy as international companies are beginning to look at investments in Iran — one of the world’s most promising markets — and the Iranian currency, stock market and key macroeconomic indicators are already getting a lift.
In a recent article, Dubowitz cast doubt on the administration’s claim that Iran sanctions relief would only amount to $7.1 billion once the JPA goes into effect. He points to the Iranian auto industry as an example.
Iran’s automotive sector is second only to the nation’s petrochemical industry in contribution to their economy, making up 10 percent of the Iranian gross domestic product. Recently, it was named the third most promising automotive sector in the world by Boston Consulting Group — behind Indonesia and Mexico. It controls 700,000 jobs, produces around 1.6 million cars, and accounted for $50 billion of Iran’s GDP just two years ago.
Factor the other macroeconomic indicators, Dubowitz says, and you get an actual estimates of at least $20 billion.
Dubowitz doesn’t know why the administration will not just admit that sanctions relief could be larger than estimated — and work with Congress to pass new legislation to reduce any unanticipated relief.
“If Iran ends up in six months or 12 months with tens of billions of dollars of unanticipated economic relief, it will be in a much stronger negotiating position. At that point, it will be much more difficult to get Tehran to peacefully dismantle its military-nuclear program.”
So far, all action remains in the Senate, where the bill currently has 33 co-sponsors — 14 of them Democrats — with whip counts predicting a good possibility that the final tally would be enough to override the president’s veto.
From there, it is almost certain to pass in the House of Representatives, which passed its own sanctions bill 400-20 in July 2013.
“Regardless whether there is a Republican or Democrat in the White House, the executive branch has long resented Congress trying to force their hand when it comes to foreign policy, including Iran sanctions,” a senior House aide told WJW.
“What I think might be a little new is the aggressiveness of the Obama administration in basically saying that if you want to increase Iran sanctions, you want war — and I think there are many members of Congress who just don’t believe that,” the aide said.
Both congressional sources agree that despite the back and forth, this bill is not meant to restrict the administration’s options, but to use the credible threat of greater sanctions to ensure Iran takes these talks seriously. They also doubt the Iranians would risk further collapse to its economy by withdrawing from negotiations under these circumstances.
“The Iranians have nothing to worry about if they are taking these talks seriously,” the House aide said. “If they give up their nuclear weapons program within the next six to eight months, there aren’t going to be any new Iran sanctions.”
Outside the Capitol, numerous think tanks and lobby groups have also made their opinions heard. With the exception of J Street, Jewish organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), have come out strongly in support of the Senate bill.
“There are always different elements of a democracy and different levers that one can pull,” Alan Ronkin, Washington regional director for the American Jewish Committee (AJC), said. “We can’t take any tools out of our box in combating the Iranian threat.”
“It’s our feeling at AJC, that it really was sanctions that brought Iran to the table in the first place — and that having the threat of further sanctions keeps the pressure on Iran to make the kind of concessions that the U.S. would want,” Ronkin said.
The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) CEO Michael Makovsky would prefer the Senate bill to have a more enforceable timeline. He also believes that the Senate’s suspicion of Iran’s negotiators is warranted.
“It reflects a lot of apprehension about the deal that was cut in Geneva and the feeling among a number of folks that the administration is too eager for a deal with Iran,” Makovsky said. “So by having sanctions legislation, it would be actually helping the administration cut a better deal. If I were Obama, I would take the Senate’s help and encourage them.”
Support from pro-Israel groups should not be ignored, because their influence is based on positions on the Iranian threat to the United States that consistently attract support from most Americans, according to Dubowitz.
He points out that, on the Iran issue, the pro-sanctions positions championed by the senators are long-held, broadly bipartisan, have worked in persuading Tehran to negotiate over its nuclear program and are supported by the overwhelming majority of Americans. Lobby groups, he says, are currently pushing through an open door.
Where policy and politics are not in synch, like in the Obama administration’s botched attempt to get congressional support for limited military action in Syria, lobby groups couldn’t move the needle.
“With Syria, Congress didn’t believe in the administration’s policy, looked at the polls and saw the American people opposed to intervention.” Dubowitz said. “And no amount of outside pressure was going to change the numbers on the Hill.”
Although, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has not signaled his position on the bill, he has moved to bypass committees and place it on the Senate calendar for early next year.