NEW YORK — US President Barack Obama supports renewal of the Iran Sanctions Act before the law expires at the end of this year, despite his public silence on the matter, House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Eliot Engel told The Jerusalem Post this week.
In a wide-ranging phone interview, Engel was asked whether he expects the White House to support an extension of the act, which served as the basis for a strict sanctions regime against the Islamic Republic before world powers agreed to a nuclear deal with Iran last year.
"Yes, I do expect it," Engel (D-New York) replied. "I've already talked to the president about it, and he's given me every indication that he supports it."
The act is expected to become a political lightning rod in Congress and an issue in the presidential campaign this fall. Advocates for its renewal believe the law provides what remains of US leverage over Iran, while skeptics fear its extension risks undermining the spirit of the landmark nuclear accord.
The Obama administration has not yet gone on record in support of ISA renewal, however. A senior administration official responded to Engel's remark by declining to comment on the president's private discussions.
But "what we've said is that it is not necessary to extend the Iran Sanctions Act at this time," the official continued. "The extension of ISA does not affect our ability to continue to issue sanctions designations when warranted, as we have ample authorities to target ballistic missile-related actors, as well as activity related to human rights violations, malicious cyber activity, and other activity of concern."
"We remain committed to working with Congress, however, and are willing to discuss how to further foreign policy priorities in a manner that does not jeopardize JCPOA implementation," the official added.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee considers ISA renewal its No. 1 priority, and has been lobbying to that end ever since last winter. Renewal is essential "so that there are sanctions in place to 'snap back' should Iran violate the nuclear agreement," the lobby argues.
The nuclear deal with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, does not allow for any party to the deal to pass new nuclear-related sanctions legislation. Officials in the Obama administration fear that even a renewal of old legislation– which, like now, will be held in reserve– may anger the Iranians, and provide hardliners in Tehran with an excuse to question the strength of the deal.
Furthering AIPAC's cause, 14 Democratic senators signed a letter last month calling for an extension of the act.
"After extensive consultations with my colleagues in both chambers of Congress and on both sides of the aisle, it is clear that we need to reauthorize the Iran Sanctions Act before the end of the year," Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), who opposed the nuclear deal during deliberations in Congress last year, said in a statement. "Doing so is vital if the United States wants to retain a credible deterrent of snap back sanctions."
Engel, who also opposed the agreement, said that he is now for strict enforcement of the deal– and for a careful management of its sunset years, during which Iran will be legitimately permitted to grow its nuclear infrastructure in both size and efficiency to industrial scale.
For this task, the congressman has faith in Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president, who he believes was skeptical of how the nuclear deal ultimately came together.
"If you listen to her remarks when she came out in favor of the JCPOA, they were very guarded and very restrained. I didn't look at it as a very enthusiastic ringing of the deal," Engel said.
"I have no way of knowing if she would've negotiated it differently," he continued. But "I've had many, many talks with Hillary Clinton about Israel. And I've always been satisfied that she understood the issues."
Engel watched carefully as Clinton responded to a critique of Israel from Bernie Sanders, on a debate stage in Brooklyn during their Democratic primary battle, in which he quoted false statistics from its war against Hamas in Gaza in 2014. "Hillary could've left it there. But she didn't," he said. "She reminded everybody that Israel voluntarily left Gaza and, in exchange for it, wound up getting missiles lobbed into civilian populations."
Engel worked extensively with Clinton when they both served in Congress representing New York. In contrast to his praise for his fellow Democrat, he wondered aloud how his fellow New Yorker, Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, could have turned into a force that has driven out of the woodwork so many illiberal forces on what he characterized as the "ultra-right."
"I don't think that Donald Trump is anti-Semitic, at all. He's from New York. He's dealt with Jews all his life. He has lots of Jewish friends," Engel said. "But his campaign creates an atmosphere of a strongman and I think that's attractive to people on the ultra-right wing, some of whom are anti-Semitic."
"I think he's an enigma, I think that frankly he's a narcissist," he said, noting that, as a New Yorker, he had been raised to learn to deal with and understand "all kinds of people."
"There's like a fascist tone to it," he added. "It's like a strongman. It makes me uncomfortable."
Despite Congress' August recess, Engel has kept busy, traveling to Afghanistan last week and meeting with constituents. Israel's interests are always a matter of concern to him, and thus he is closely watching how negotiations unfold between the Israeli government and Obama administration on a new decade-long Memorandums of Understanding governing US defense aid to the Jewish state.
"Anything around 4 billion dollars is extraordinary when you think about how the foreign aid pot has been decreasing in recent years," he noted. "Israel becomes a larger and larger percentage."
That money– set to be the largest-ever package in US history– will, for the most part, go straight back into the coffers of the US defense industry, where the Israelis will be acquiring most of their weapons.
That is what has largely held up the negotiations in recent months: Whether Israel would be allowed to continue procuring weapons from its own defense establishment.
"Obviously, the more money the better," Engel said.
"Memorandum of understanding" are not legally binding documents, and are more like gentlemen's agreements, serving as diplomatic agreements unencumbered by ratification requirements.
So does Engel believe that a President Donald Trump would honor such understandings?
"That's why Donald Trump is such a concern to me. I don't know where Donald Trump stands on anything," he said. "I disagreed with George W. Bush on a lot of policy, but when it came to Israel I was happy and I praised him. This is not about partisan politics at all."