Defying White House, senators introduce new sanctions against Iran

"Trigger" bill calls for automatically sanctioning Iran if no comprehensive nuclear deal is reached by deadline; White House says bill could "potentially disrupt the opportunity for a diplomatic solution."

US Capitol building in Washington DC 390 (photo credit: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)
US Capitol building in Washington DC 390
(photo credit: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)
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.
The 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.
The 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.
Ever 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 nuclear-related sanctions.”
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 deal.
The new sanctions would target Iran's oil sector, which has already seen a 60 percent drop in exports since 2011 due to sanctions.
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.
There 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.
Also with control over schedule and procedure, Reid can, has and will continue to influence the speed with which a bill reaches the Senate chamber floor.
"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.
"AIPAC doesn't want Israel to be blamed for the failure of negotiations," Clawson added. "Why set yourself up to be blamed for the failure of talks?"
The 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."