WASHINGTON -- Defying the Obama administration, Senate Foreign Relations
Committee chairman Robert Menendez introduced a bill on Thursday that,
if passed, would trigger harsh new sanctions against Iran should its
government fail to reach a comprehensive agreement with world powers over its nuclear program.
bill, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013, has 25 cosponsors
across party lines, including Senators Chuck Schumer, Lindsey Graham,
John McCain, Bob Casey, Marco Rubio, Chris Coons, John Cornyn, Kirsten
Gillibrand and Bob Corker.
“Current sanctions brought Iran to the
negotiating table, and a credible threat of future sanctions will
require Iran to cooperate and act in good faith at the negotiating
table,” Menendez said in a statement. “Prospective sanctions will
influence Iran’s calculus and accelerate that process toward achieving a
meaningful diplomatic resolution.”
The decision to move forward
with the bill may be more political than practical: with just days left
in the congressional session before members recess for the holiday,
Menendez and the bill's co-author, Mark Kirk, have no realistic chance
of getting a vote before the new year.
"The American people
rightfully distrust Iran's true intentions and they deserve an insurance
policy to defend against Iranian deception during negotiations,” Kirk
said. “This is a responsible, bipartisan bill to protect the American
people from Iranian deception and I urge the Majority Leader to give the
American people an up or down vote."
Motivated politically or
otherwise, their action comes with risk: Iranian Foreign Minister
Mohammad Javad Zarif has warned that new sanctions action from Congress
would render the interim agreement, forged in Geneva last month, "entirely dead."
The White House lobbied against any new sanctions bill
of any kind, sending US Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury
Secretary Jack Lew to Capitol Hill on several occasions, where they
briefed members of Congress on the interim deal forged in Geneva last
month and the possible consequences of new legislation.
Geneva deal agreed upon by Iran and the P5+1 powers— the US, United
Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany— effectively halts Iran's
nuclear program in exchange for modest sanctions relief.
since the House of Representatives passed legislation last July adding
new sanctions against Iran by a vote of 400-20, Senate leadership has
repeatedly vowed to follow suit.
But six months later, and now
days away from 2014, progress on a host of proposed bills has been
procedurally blocked by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who— just
days before the Geneva deal was reached— promised a vote on sanctions
legislation by the end of the year.
Some members of Congress said the interim deal came as a surprise. And yet sources tell The Jerusalem Post
that, well before the deal was publicly announced on November 24,
Senate members were briefed on the deal, including on one specific
provision that ultimately resulted in the final draft: that “the US
administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the
President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new
After the deal passed, Menendez, a
Democrat, was one of the first leadership members to suggest the
"trigger" bill now introduced that would respect the six-month timeframe
of the interim agreement— but would automatically sanction Iran after
that deadline should world powers and Iran fail to reach a comprehensive
The new sanctions would target Iran's oil sector, which
has already seen a 60 percent drop in exports since 2011 due to
The Obama administration has threatened that such a
bill would be interpreted as "action" by the Iranians, sufficient to
amount to a violation of the Geneva agreement. Better to have a bill
drafted and ready for the day after deadline, they asserted, than passed
and ready for implementation.
"We don't think it will be enacted, we don't think it should be enacted," White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Thursday, after the bill was introduced.
"It is very important to refrain from taking an action that would potentially disrupt the opportunity here for a diplomatic solution," Carney said. "We don't want to see actions that would proactively undermine American diplomacy."
The American Israel Public Affairs
Committee has not been shy in its efforts to push a bill on to the
president's desk. The large pro-Israel lobby in Washington— aligned with
Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who publicly advocated for new
sanctions and against the Geneva deal for over a month— questioned the
wisdom of the interim accord and continued lobbying for the new bill.
are various paths to victory for sanctions advocates other than a clean
bill: through committee, or through the amendment process, in which an
entire bill's language can be attached to another, completely unrelated
bill before a vote.
Reid's job has been to prevent senators bent
on amending large, must-pass bills this season with Iran sanctions
legislation from doing so— or "filling the tree," as its called.
with control over schedule and procedure, Reid can, has and will
continue to influence the speed with which a bill reaches the Senate
"I don't think Democrats want to embarrass the
president, and Republicans don't want to give the president an
opportunity to say that his strategy would have succeeded without
Republican obstructionism," said Patrick Clawson, director of research
at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
want Israel to be blamed for the failure of negotiations," Clawson
added. "Why set yourself up to be blamed for the failure of talks?"
Geneva deal may remind Congress of the constitutional power of the
executive in casting foreign policy: it was within the president's
authority to vow, in an international diplomatic agreement, that
Congress would not pass new sanctions for the time being.
And yet in the words of one Senate aide familiar with the working sanctions bills: "Reid can't fill every tree."
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