Last week when Senate sanctions and a House resolution on Iran failed to emerge, a number of media outlets said the administration had “won” in closing sanctions down. We disagreed, pointing to ongoing talks, especially in the Senate, and strong support for sanctions from Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). Yesterday our assessment proved correct when over a quarter (26) the Senate, roughly half Republicans and half Democrats, co-sponsored a bill to enact sanctions if Iran cheats during the interim agreement or fails to reach a final deal and to reaffirm the parameters of a final deal (terms embodied in United Nations resolutions and articulated by three presidents, including this one).
Those parameters include “dismantl[ing] Iran’s illicit nuclear infrastructure, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and facilities, the heavy water reactor and production plant at Arak, and any nuclear weapon components and technology, so that Iran is precluded from a nuclear breakout capability and prevented from pursuing both uranium and plutonium pathways to a nuclear weapon.” In addition, Iran must come into compliance with all U.N. resolutions and allow round-the-clock inspections.
The bill includes broad waiver authority for the administration. (This had been a concern for some Democrats.)
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) issued a statement: “I welcome this bipartisan bill put forward today by Chairman Menendez and look forward to working with the Senate, should Senate leadership allow a sanctions bill to move. Sanctions will continue to be critical if we are going to get a verifiable deal that stops Iran’s march to nuclear weapons.” I asked House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer’s office for his reaction. His spokesperson pointed to an earlier interview Hoyer gave on “Face the Nation” in which he anticipated the Senate’s action. “I think that the Senate has a sanction bill that increases sanctions, which we passed in the House in July,” he said. “I think moving forward with that, but not implementing it for six months, assuming that the Iranians do in fact what they say they’re going to do” is the right thing to do.
The reaction from the White House was, frankly, odd. It pulled together 10 chairmen of other committees without jurisdiction over Iran to opine that this would blow up negotiations. And White House spokesman Jay Carney rattled the cage on a veto. One wonders if White House officials really looked at the sanctions and listened to bipartisan voices. If anything, the White House reaction highlighted how deeply worried loyal Democrats are about our Iran posture. It is not easy to be at odds with their party’s president; only urgent circumstances can propel them to do so.
Let’s start with what the bill is not. It is not an attempt to submarine negotiations. If that were the case Congress would pass sanctions now or up the ante, making demands beyond what we have previously put forth. It did not. It is not a personal sleight, attack upon or blow to the president. The characterization of such by the White House spinners is plain wrong and overlooks the real reason for congressional action. (More in a minute about that.) R0bert Menendez and Chuck Schumer are not out to wreck the Obama presidency or cause a war. It is not partisan; Democrats are as troubled by recent events as Republicans. It is not the “Israel lobby” at work. If that were the all-powerful cabal anti-Semites paint it to be, President Obama would never have made the interim deal, Israel would be pleased as punch (rather than distraught) and every ally would be irate at Congress; in fact none of these is true.
What is going on here is the sinking feeling, perhaps panic, among members of Congress, our Arab allies and the French (the most experienced of any power in negotiating with Iran) that the administration has conveyed such desperation (and is doing so again in objecting to sanctions) that we’ve gone from a position of strength to one in which Iran can threaten Congress and the president that it will leave negotiations if Congress acts. Iran saw (rightly or wrongly) weakness in Syria and now sees a president willing to alleviate the one pressure point he has, sanctions, for a very lopsided deal. Congress understands that if this continues, the Iranians will never peacefully give up their nuclear weapons system. Moreover, we’ve left out of the deal Iran’s weaponization and ballistic missile programs. The latter are aimed at Europe and the United States.
Critics of the sanctions badly misunderstand the motives and concerns of its advocates. The latter actually understand that the president is making a deal harder to get and war more likely. They are compelled to step in to reverse this development.
Why is the White House so hysterical? Here we get back to the Chicken Little syndrome — officials are petrified Iran will get mad and walk out. Well, if Iran actually believed we’d keep ratcheting up sanctions or act militarily, they wouldn’t do that, would they? And what if Iran walks out? Congress can increase sanctions, and the Iranians will have lost their economic relief and psychological advantage. Rather than whine at Congress, Secretary of State John Kerry should turn to the Iranians and say they will deeply regret walking out, because then there will be no way to hold back the imposition of more rounds of sanctions and/or Israeli action.
The administration — which blundered on Syria, alienated both sides in the “peace process,” freaked out our Gulf neighbors and gave Iran a diplomatic win in Geneva — needs to stop huffing and puffing. White House officials don’t know what they’re doing and should listen to Congress. And it might be helpful for real negotiators with experience, such as Dennis Ross, to speak up to tell them: Calm down. Let Congress help you. Don’t throw away the leverage to get rid of Iran’s nuclear program.
There is something else at work here. The administration is no doubt freaked out that Congress still takes the U.N. resolutions seriously and expects Iran to cease enrichment as part of a final deal. That isn’t possible, Obama and Kerry will sputter. The only reason is that Iran doesn’t want to. And that is precisely why Obama needs to reignite the only leverage we have (no one thinks Obama will act militarily), namely crippling sanctions.
The administration understands this at some level. Prompted by Congress, it upped sanctions enforcement last week –something it hasn’t done in a very long time. Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies observes, “Actively punishing Iran for its mendacity while trying to selectively reduce other sanctions (in this case, automotive, petrochemicals and precious metals) for the sake of diplomacy projects two competing messages. It should come as no surprise that this dual approach has inspired the confidence of neither Iran nor Congress. Indeed, the only actors out there who are heartened by Washington’s conflicted policies are the companies eyeing investments in Iran. They see confusion, and therefore ambiguity. And that’s a whole lot better than the investment environment of just a few months ago, when Iran appeared to be completely off limits.” That is what the Congress is trying to prevent.
The administration once upon a time understood that Iran should not be allowed any enrichment. Obama officials still must understand that if Iran keeps enrichment, Iran keeps its breakout capacity. The idea of “low-grade” enrichment is meaningless with Iran’s advancements in centrifuge technology. (Enrichment of 3.5 percent is actually perilously close to 90-percent weapons-grade uranium because each percentage point of enrichment is easier to achieve than the last). The administration at one time made clear that allowing Iran to keep enrichment would undercut the United Nations, destroy the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons system and set off an arms race in the Middle East. The administration was right then and Congress should help it obtain the ends it knows are essential. Obama is being thrown a lifeline by Congress. He should grab it.