Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, did not join a letter last week signed by 42 Republicans that pushed for a vote on the Menendez-Kirk Iran sanctions bill. I asked him Monday afternoon why not. “It had zero impact as to whether we will have a vote,” he said. “I have a chairman [Sen. Robert Menendez] interested in a shared [way forward]. He has deep concerns which are real.” Proceeding with only Republicans, he explained, “turns it into a partisan issue.” Moreover, the reasoning goes, it turns it into a losing issue in the Senate and gives the White House the argument that this is purely partisan.
That doesn’t mean Corker is satisfied — far from it. He said bluntly, “This is the biggest foreign policy issue and not to debate it on the floor is a diminishment of the Senate.” Obviously, the responsibility lies with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who is acting as the White House lackey, and thereby assuming responsibility for the result.
Those involved in pro-sanctions activity indicate discussions are ongoing for further action, which may or may not include sanctions (it must be recognized that at some point sanctions cease to be meaningful). Moreover, there is growing consensus that any external event (e.g. Iran cheating, Iran walking out, Iran insisting on keeping its illicit program) will change the dynamic in the Senate.
Corker was circumspect, but he did agree with Menendez that waiting six months to reactivate sanctions will be too late. “If we don’t do Menendez-Kirk, you’ll have to do something more radical [later on].”
Corker made it clear in his opening statement at the latest Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that Congress is still looking for ways to stiffen the administration’s spine. He said, “[M]aybe what Congress should do is pass a piece of legislation that lays out clearly the only thing we will accept at the end. Because, again, I think that there’s concerns that members of the administration are negotiating towards rolling interim agreements, basically the agreement that we have now, where we have the ability to monitor, and yet they dismantle [nothing], is actually the end state that some of the people and some within the administration would wish to achieve.”
At that hearing, sanctions guru Mark Dubowitz explained, “I think that the legislation had as its intent, to send a credible threat to international markets that it is premature to go back into Iran, and that if Iran does not satisfy the interim conditions, if it cheats on the [interim deal], if it fires off long-range ballistic missiles, if it launches terrorist attacks against America, that all the sanctions relief would be gone and new sanctions would be imposed on Iran.” In blocking a sanctions vote, the White House and Reid give the Iranians time to recover economically while they pursue advanced research on centrifuges and continue ballistic weapons development.
What, then, do the White House and Reid propose to do in six months when Iran hasn’t agreed to dismantle its program, still has the Arak and Fordow plants, still has enriched materials and has an even more advanced delivery system?
All this plays out while the most prominent pro-Israel group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is going through its rockiest period in decades. The administration’s attacks on sanctions advocates as “war mongers” and ability to rebuff sanctions showed AIPAC’s declining influence on the left, a trend accelerated under an administration with the worst relationship with Israel since George H.W. Bush. In awkwardly abandoning the current sanctions battle, AIPAC was accused by the right of bending over backward to accommodate Democrats who aren’t supportive of sanctions. When AIPAC attempted damage control last Friday by issuing a letter from its president saying AIPAC was in fact still in favor of sanctions, the reaction on Capitol Hill ranged from confusion to contempt. At the time its role is most critical, AIPAC is least effective.
AIPAC and pro-Israel lawmakers share a common dilemma. If the administration in six months does not achieve its ends but keeps “negotiating,” it is practicing containment without the containment, in effect allowing Iran to go nuclear. Unless that is no longer “unacceptable,” the White House and Senate Democrats will have some distasteful alternatives, including actions (e.g. an embargo) that could spark hostilities. If there is some other option, the White House should speak up; otherwise we — and the Iranians — will conclude there is no will to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.