The U.S. Senate unanimously voted to tighten sanctions on Iran on Monday, three days after a dispute over including the threat of American force stalled the legislation.
The new sanctions would target Iran’s oil and banking industries, as well as other sectors. The measure passed the Senate on a voice vote Monday evening, two days before a new round of talks between Iran and leading U.N. members in Baghdad. . . .
Passage came after senators agreed to add language warning that the military action would be an option available if Iran seeks to build a nuclear weapon. But the measure also states that nothing in the legislation authorizes military action.
The added language is not binding, but, rather is a Sense of Congress measure, which reads:
It is the sense of Congress that the goal of compelling Iran to abandon efforts to acquire a nuclear weapons capability and other threatening activities can be effectively achieved through a comprehensive policy that includes economic sanctions, diplomacy, and military planning, capabilities and options, and that this objective is consistent with the one stated by President Barack Obama in the 2012 State of the Union Address: ‘‘Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal’’.
If it all seems to be a bit of a jumble, it is. Moreover, because the Senate and House versions don’t match, both versions will go to conference. When? No one can really say.
The American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) issued a restrained statement praising passage of the measure, but indicating that the sanctions bill would need to be beefed up in conference. (“Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) worked constantly to ensure additional tough sanctions were included in this bill, and remain committed to adding even stronger measures in negotiations between the House and Senate.”) AIPAC also urged Congress to get moving on the conference. (“AIPAC urges the Senate and House to rapidly resolve the differences between S. 2101 and the Iran Threat Reduction Act (H.R. 1905) which the House passed 410-11 in December 2011.”)
So our negotiators go into the “P5+1” talks on Wednesday with sanctions not finalized, but nevertheless looming on the horizon. There are a few possibilities as to what happens next.
Iran might take the sanctions as a heavy-handed measure (albeit incomplete), feign offense and try to up the ante in the talks, or even walk out. The West would then have to decide to go chase a deal or hold firm in its demands.
Alternatively, the sanctions might not factor into either side’s decision-making. As I’ve noted before, President Obama and the Iranians are joined at the hip in wanting a deal that holds Israel at bay and gives the appearance of a diplomatic breakthrough. Obama has made it patently clear that before the election he wants no international conflicts, especially one that could roil the oil markets. The chances that such a deal born of U.S. desperation will effectively halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program are virtually nil. But it’s still quite possible such a face-saver with “details to be worked out later” could result.
The Senate could and should have acted sooner to reach agreement with the House on compelling sanctions legislation. But at least it has acted. The ball is now in the president’s court. Will his negotiators use the prospect of sanctions and the threat of military action to force Iran to accede to the West’s demands, or will he in essence give the store away, trying to get by with a flimsy and unenforceable deal? We’ll find out soon.