One of the biggest decisions Democrats will face after recess is whether to go through with the threat to vote to impose additional sanctions on Iran — which the White House fears would undermine the prospects for a huge diplomatic breakthrough in the form of a long term deal curbing its nuclear program. Powerful Senate Democrats have openly discussed trying to re-impose sanctions in the wake of the announcement of the temporary deal.
But there may be another way forward for Dems.
In an interview with me, one of the leading pro-Israel hawks in Congress — Dem Rep. Eliot Engel of New York — said he’d be willing to accept it if the Senate did not vote on additional sanctions just now, and instead held up the potential for sanctions as a threat if the talks fail by the six month deadline, or if Iran doesn’t honor its end of the short term deal.
This would be more palatable to the administration, which has asked Dems to refrain from passing any sanctions now — even ones that only would take hold after six months — because the administration wants the flexibility to continue talks after the deadline if both sides decide a deal is within reach.
“It seems to me the threat of sanctions could strengthen our negotiators’ hand,” Engel told me. “But since they are negotiating, I don’t think it would be terrible if the Senate respected that and kept the sanctions ready to go if needed. I don’t think it would be unreasonable for the Senate to do that.”
“The sanctions can still be used as a club,” said Engel, the ranking Dem on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “I don’t know that it has to be passed on the floor. Maybe that’s the compromise: You keep them ready to go at a moment’s notice, and you give the administration some breathing room.”
Engel stressed there was little reason to trust Iran’s intentions. “If there’s one thing that brought Iran to the negotiating table, it’s the sanctions,” he said. “I don’t trust the Iranians and I have great doubts about this. But I hope it works.”
If you look closely at Engel’s combination of skepticism and openness to giving the White House flexibility, you can see the outlines of a way forward for hawkish Democrats. Dems such as Chuck Schumer and Senate Foreign Relations Chair Robert Menendez are expressing skepticism of the deal, claiming it could necessitate new sanctions to restore sufficient pressure on Iran, and Harry Reid has said the Senate could act after recess. But the skeptical and threatening tone could prove to be kabuki — allowing Dems to ultimately say they are willing to grant the administration the flexibility it has asked for, but on a tight leash. Engel’s quotes provide a plausible rationale for this course of action.
One big question mark in all of this is Harry Reid. In a good piece, Politico reported that Reid is caught between more hawkish Dems in his caucus (Schumer, Menendez) who may well want the Senate to hold a vote on more sanctions, and the White House, which wants Senate Dems to hold off. As Politico notes, Reid is being decidedly less aggressive than Schumer or Menendez, and has not pledged to hold such a vote.
It remains unclear how this will play out, but quotes such as those from Engel could help provide cover for Democrats. They can continue to play a kind of bad cop role, threatening to vote on sanctions at the six month mark if the deal doesn’t work out, or even at any point sooner, if Dems determine Iran is not living up to its end of the temporary bargain, particularly its promise to allow inspectors’ access to its nuke program. At the same time, by not holding the vote now, Dems can allow the administration the flexibility it wants to pursue a broader deal.