WASHINGTON – On October 29, with just a day’s notice, members of the National
Security Council summoned four of America’s most influential pro-Israel
lobbyists to the White House for an urgent meeting.
officials had been informed that the Senate Banking Committee was preparing to
mark up a long-threatened, unforgiving bill that would further restrict Iran’s
oil sector as early as this week – right before US diplomats meet with their
Iranian counterparts in Geneva, where they hope to forge an interim agreement
over Iran’s controversial and expansive nuclear program.
The bill is the
fifth piece of sanctions legislation against Iran written by the US Congress in
four years. Among the five, this is the harshest yet.
making clear to the White House that this train is moving,” one Senate aide
said. “The administration didn’t want anything scheduled, and they didn’t want
anything announced, at least until they get through the next
Fearing the train may have left the station, National Security
Adviser Susan Rice, her deputies Ben Rhodes and Tony Blinken and Undersecretary
of State Wendy Sherman came to the meeting with a request: Hold off on
pressuring Congress to move forward through the next two rounds of
“The timing was everything,” said David Harris, executive
director of the American Jewish Committee.
The meeting was on such short
notice that Harris had to send a deputy in his place.
“At this point, I
am willing to give the administration the benefit of their judgment,” said Abe
Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who says the
administration hopes for kernels of a deal to emerge by the end of
“I think at the end of that month they will know if it’s real
or not,” Foxman said, at which point, “this debate may be moot.”
the lobbying has continued, both because and in spite of the delicacy of the
moment: All parties see a short window to act. All share the same goal of
ridding Iran of its enrichment program, in its eighth year in earnest and well
on its way to providing the Islamic Republic with several nuclear warheads. But
the White House and Congress – operating in sync with Israel’s government and
its American advocates – have conflicting strategies on how best to proceed
towards that goal.
Regardless, Foxman is correct: This week in Geneva,
Iran’s actions will determine which path America takes, several officials and
legislators explained in interviews with The Jerusalem Post.
ways, it’s not a bad thing having this out there. But it has to be dropped at an
appropriate time,” former secretary of state Madeleine Albright said, speaking
by phone from Salt Lake City. “It just depends when you use the
Those in support of the measure argue that sanctions
are a proven coercive force; that existing penalties have brought Iran to the
negotiating table, but that more are required for Iran to actually close a
They seek a complete freeze of all enrichment across Iran. On
Capitol Hill, they represent the greatest bipartisan coalition on any issue
today, foreign or domestic.
The bill would immediately sever Iran’s
access to its remaining foreign-exchange reserves, estimated at roughly $100
billion with $20b. in unrestricted funds. It would clamp down on Iran’s shipping
But harshest of all, Congress would impose a mandatory cap on
the number of barrels of crude oil per day that Iran could export – less than 50
percent of its BPD count, met within 12 months from passage – or else its buyers
would face significant financial penalties.
The US president has the
authority to grant sanctions waivers to companies based in allied nations buying
Iranian oil. Those exemptions would no longer be renewed, forcing President
Barack Obama to inform Beijing, Seoul and Istanbul that their oil would have to
come from elsewhere, quickly, or else risk economic ties with the United
For this reason, the Obama administration is pushing back.
Sanctions have worked, the White House charges, only because the president has
used political capital to shore up an international coalition willing to enforce
them. Only the executive branch can implement them, and indeed, the president
has done so effectively: Iran’s exports of crude have already halved, and the
value of Iran’s currency has plummeted over 60% since 2010.
House fears this bill will fracture its global coalition against Iran – and that
a conservative political alignment to the right of Iranian President Hassan
Rouhani will punish him, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, for attempting a
futile reconciliation effort with the US.
Speaking on the condition of
anonymity due to the sensitivity of the talks, one senior administration
official used sharp language to describe the possible consequences of further
“Moving forward now will severely undermine prospects
for a diplomatic solution,” the official said. “It will create cracks in the
international coalition we have built to enforce the sanctions. It will provide
an excuse for those in Iran who want to resist any deal.”
called the bill “unnecessary,” because the president has the prerogative to sign
executive orders implementing most of the bill’s provisions.
reason to believe Rouhani and [Foreign Minister Mohammed] Zarif are both
empowered to make a deal, and highly incentivized to make a deal,” said Colin
Kahl, a former senior Pentagon official now a professor at Georgetown
University’s School of Foreign Service. “The great achievement of the Obama
administration is that they changed the narrative from the [former president
George W.] Bush years – now, the reason diplomacy has failed so far isn’t
America’s fault, but Iran’s.”
Two days after the White House meeting,
Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury
Secretary Jack Lew made their plea to Congress in a classified meeting on
Capitol Hill. Enthusiasm over the prospects of a deal was underwhelming,
multiple senators said.
“Senior administration officials made the same
claims and asked us to withdraw the amendment” before the last several rounds of
sanctions, Sen. Mark Kirk (Illinois), a leading Republican on the issue,
commented over email. “They were wrong, and today the Menendez-Kirk amendment is
credited with bringing Iran back to the negotiating table.”
The time to
act is now, Kirk said, not after giving Iran several more chances to forge a
hallow interim agreement.
Sen. Robert Menendez (New Jersey) is
unconvinced. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, he is the
highestranking Democrat in Congress on issues of foreign policy. And yet it is
he – not his Republican colleagues – who is leading an effort to push this bill
through committee by the end of the year.
In a phone interview, Menendez
said he had not heard “sufficient, substantive reasons to delay” the bill beyond
Friday’s talks in Geneva.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to know what
is your bottom line – at least we have to know, even if that knowledge is in a
secured fashion,” Menendez said. “What’s our position on a final set of
negotiation? What’s our end game?” Menendez said that, barring any dramatic
developments in Geneva this week, he will move forward with the bill in
committee in short order.
“I would really want to see something
significant by the end of [this] week,” he said.
In a letter
to Obama, Menendez, Kirk, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and a bipartisan
group of their peers told the president that they would only halt progress on
the bill if Iran agreed to a complete freeze of uranium enrichment.
would really be surprised if they had a meaningful interim agreement by the end
of the week,” Albright said, sympathizing with the difficult job ahead for her
“We are at a moment where it is possible to have some kind of
an agreement, but it will take a while, because it’s a complicated diplomatic
Patrick Clawson, a sanctions expert at the Washington Institute
for Near East Policy, said that the US should be teasing Iran with the prospect
of sanctions relief should they deliver on a deal.
“If the P5+1
negotiators were to get the Iranians to freeze all uranium enrichment, they
should all get lavish raises, because that would be a remarkable achievement,”
Clawson said. “But it’s silly for the White House to say this bill undercuts
Rouhani. It reinforces Rouhani, because he can go to Khamenei and say that the
West has always said things will get worse until there’s an
Complicating negotiations is the mere science of nuclear
enrichment: At this point, advances in Iran’s program make an interim deal much
harder to forge than it would have been even six months ago. Iran has developed
and installed IR2M centrifuges that enrich uranium at three to five times the
efficiency of their older models, allowing them to spin low-enriched stockpiles
into weapons-grade material at a quicker pace than UN inspectors can detect the
That means uranium enriched at just 3.5% could be speedily
converted, making a higher percentage cutoff no longer acceptable to Western
“I’d be willing to listen to the totality of any package,”
Menendez said, when asked whether he would entertain an interim deal in which
Iran agreed to enrich uranium at no higher than 3.5%.
The House of
Representatives already passed its own version of the bill over the summer. The
effort was led by Democrats, passing by a vote of 400 to 20.
always a pull and tug between the executive branch and the legislative branch
when it comes to foreign policy,” Congressman Eliot Engel (D-New York) said,
praising the negotiations process. “You could say, ‘hold off and let the
president’s people do all this.’ Or you could go into a classic good cop, bad
Engel, who pioneered the House bill, said that the US has
waited until the “11th hour” to seriously address the Iranian crisis.
asked whether he would support a resolution giving the president authorization
for the use of force, Engel said, “we shouldn’t jump the gun.”
stops enriching, we should stop adding additional sanctions,” the congressman
said. “If Iran starts dismantling its program, we can start dismantling
Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian
American Council, called the “freeze-for-freeze” proposal a nonstarter, and said
he does not expect a breakthrough within Congress’s set time frame.
is not good cop, bad cop. This is good cop, insane cop,” Parsi said in a phone
interview. “Khamenei has given Rouhani a lot of rope. And if he fails, he has a
lot of rope to hang himself on.”
Since his September speech to
the United Nations in New York, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has repeatedly
said that Israel supports the negotiations process and seeks a peaceful
resolution to the nuclear dispute.
But in what represents yet another
public disagreement with Obama in a series of many, Netanyahu, through
intermediaries, is encouraging US lawmakers to pass the bill, because he is
convinced that further pressure is the only way to force Iran to
“I don’t want to comment on any specific legislation in the
Senate, but I can say this,” Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said in an
interview in Washington. “Netanyahu emphasized the formula of the equation: The
greater the pressure, the greater the chances... for diplomacy to
Administration officials recognize the role Israel’s government
has played in the lobbying effort.
“The point of contention is not the
diplomatic process per se. It’s whether, at this moment in time, that process
would be strengthened or weakened by additional congressional action,” Harris
said. “Those that support congressional action are not saying, let’s scuttle the
What they are saying is, the diplomatic process is
far more likely to achieve results if we strengthen our posture.”
whether he thought Iran would ever fully cease nuclear enrichment, as Netanyahu
demands, Harris conceded it is unlikely.
“It may never happen,” he said,
“but if I’m selling my house, I don’t open with my price.”
Zolandz, a sanctions lawyer representing firms in Europe and Asia trying to
abide by the current regime, said he worries that more penalties will compound
pressure on his clients.
“The concrete impact of new legislation is both
political and strategic – even if the bill has a phase-in period, it will
immediately change the calculus in negotiations,” Zolandz said. “New legislation
could have a dynamic impact on the US’s ability to negotiate with the Iranians,
as well as our allies.”
Zolandz expects the current sanctions regime will
continue to damage Iran’s economy, so long as Obama maintains strict enforcement
and closes loopholes in the laws with executive orders.
But “there is a
limit to how effective the status quo can be,” Zolandz said. “The question of
whether you can continue to effectuate change through the status quo is really
difficult to answer, because good data on the Iranian economy is hard to come
Multiple clocks are ticking: One in Congress, one in the White
House, one in Jerusalem and two in Tehran. Calculated or not, the Iranians have
allowed their program to advance so far ahead of any developed negotiations
process that they will struggle to cut a deal without appearing to capitulate to
Western demands. That’s a real political problem for the Rouhani government, if
it truly wants a deal.
The second clock is entirely their own: Should
they choose nuclear breakout, Iran reserves the ability to do so at any time, so
long as their program’s infrastructure remains in place.
The White House
insists that US intelligence agencies are capable of detecting breakout in Iran,
which they determine would occur not in publicly acknowledged facilities but in
covert plants, likely slowing down the process.
Contacted for this
article, White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the administration does
not seek an openended delay of the legislation.
“There may come a point
where additional sanctions are necessary,” Meehan said.
“The window for
negotiation is limited, and if progress isn’t made, there may be a time when
more sanctions are, in fact, necessary.”
The final clock running its
course is in Geneva. This week, the consequences of Iran’s decisions are real
Whether or not Zarif comes to the table with an actual,
meaningful proposal will determine how Israel prepares going forward; how
Congress legislates its punishments; and the wearing patience of a president,
desperate for a deal that he knows may never come to pass.
trying to use the time that Rouhani has, because there’s no question that
Rouhani also has a difficult internal situation,” Albright said. “And this is
what diplomacy’s about – figuring out what you can do with the person at the
other side of the table.”