Senate prepares major vote on Iran sanctions next month

White House braces for decision that will be increasingly difficult to avoid, as bill authors seek broad support.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – A bill challenging diplomatic efforts with Iran may get a vote on the Senate floor in January.
The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 would trigger new sanctions against Iran should negotiations fail to produce a comprehensive agreement on its nuclear program in six-to-12 months – or should its government fall short of complying with the technical tenets of a temporary deal brokered last month in Geneva.
The interim 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.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez said his bill honors the efforts of US President Barack Obama to forge a diplomatic agreement with Iran, and yet holds the international community accountable to deliver one within the time frame outlined in the Geneva accord.
The proposed bill grants the president a year to negotiate with Iran before sanctions are triggered. Those sanctions include harsh new penalties for countries still importing Iranian oil, including allies, requiring they cut at least 30 percent of their purchases within months of enactment.
That will adversely impact countries previously granted sanctions waivers, such as Japan, South Korea and China – a member of the P5+1 talks currently supportive of US efforts.
One specific provision of the Geneva deal would be undermined, warned the White House and Iran alike: that “the US administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the president and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions.”
Regardless of when the sanctions are triggered, passage of the bill amounts to an action that could be interpreted as a violation of the agreement. The White House has threatened a presidential veto should the bill come to pass. It would be this president’s third veto since taking office.
Since the bill does not become law without the president’s signature, the White House could argue to Iran that no meaningful action had been taken. It would then be up to Iran whether or not it wants to interpret the bill’s passage as a violation of the Geneva provision, should matters reach that point.
“There is no need for new sanctions legislation, not yet,” Obama told the White House press corps on Friday, adding that he would support swift action should talks fail.
Multiple Senate aides familiar with the legislation told The Jerusalem Post to expect a vote on the bill early next year, though the timeline is contingent on the breadth of support its authors, Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), are able to whip over the next several weeks.
Their staffs are expected to work to compel cosigners over the holiday recess.
“There are many of us, Democrats and Republicans in this Senate, who believe the best way to avoid war and get around to give up nuclear weapons is by ratcheting up sanctions, not by reducing them,” Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York) said Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press.
“So we have to be tough. And the legislation we put in says to the Iranians: if you don’t come to an agreement after six months – and the president can extend it to a year – the sanctions are going to toughen up.”
Rule 14 of Senate procedure was initiated last week, which is a point of order to schedule floor debate for a bill. That is the last process before voting begins.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has the ability to expedite or delay a vote through his control of the Senate schedule. But facing the possibility of broad bipartisan consensus, the leader might have little choice whether or not to bring the bill to the floor.
Officials in the Obama administration who have spoken with the Post worry that it is a question of when, not if, a vote will take place.
“The more cosponsors there are, the higher the likelihood of a vote,” one Senate aide said.
“Reid will want to wait to see that a large majority of his own caucus supports the bill – and once that happens, combined with near unanimous Republican support, it’s hard to see how Reid blocks a vote.”
Reid (D-Nevada) is a longstanding ally of the president, and can be expected to delay the vote for as long as possible; but Republicans can undermine that effort with a variety of procedural tools that could threaten other legislative efforts. They could attempt to amend sanctions on to unrelated bills, and would threaten to politicize the effort.
“Reid does not want to force Democrats to vote over and over against consideration of the bill,” one aide commented.
Last week, 10 Democratic senators, including Senate Banking Committee chairman Bob Johnson, who oversees sanctions legislation in his committee, urged Reid to avoid scheduling a vote at all costs.
“At this time, as negotiations are ongoing, we believe that new sanctions would play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see the negotiations fail,” the senators wrote.
Meanwhile in Geneva, technical talks between P5+1 powers and Iran, aimed at implementing the first-step deal, were proving more difficult than expected.
“Iran and the 5+1 powers must go through talks abroad with seriousness, precision and with good will,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Sunday at a news conference, after three days of technical discussions.
“These are not easy talks. The finer details of the agreements must be considered.”