Washington watch: What’s really behind the new Iran sanctions bill?

The Iranians understand that if the talks fail support for military action will grow.

Iran talks in Geneva November 20 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)
Iran talks in Geneva November 20 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)
When I hear senators say they want to enact harsh new anti-Iran sanctions that the administration says can do more harm that good to the nuclear negotiations I am reminded of the angry parent who tells a child that the spanking he’s about to get “hurts me more than it hurts you, but it’s for your own good.”
That’s what the backers of the bipartisan Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 want us to believe. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), the lead sponsor and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says the bill is essential to keeping the pressure on the Iranians and letting then know “what could appear at the end of the tunnel” if talks fail or they cheat on any agreement.
They already know that, Obama told reporters last Friday; he left the clear impression he considers the Senate bill to be little more than political posturing that can do more harm than good to efforts to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.
“I don’t think the Iranians have any doubt that the Congress would be more than happy to pass more sanctions legislation. We can do that in a day, on a dime,” he said. The sanctions that brought the Iranians to the table are still in place and being enforced during the talks, he added. “We lose nothing during this negotiation period.”
The Senate bill demands Iran dismantle all of its “enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and facilities,” something Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been calling for as well – but a goal few experts believe is attainable.
Netanyahu has not spoken out publicly on this bill, and he has lowered his rhetoric following his angry outbursts of a few weeks back, but there are signs he’s pushing for this legislation behind the scenes regardless of what the administration wants.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York), a strong backer of the bill who often boasts of his close relationship with Netanyahu, said the best way to convince Iran to give up nuclear weapons is “by ratcheting up sanctions, not by reducing them.”
It is doubtful he’d be breaking with the White House and taking a leadership role in pressing this legislation if his friend in Jerusalem didn’t approve.
And the new Israeli ambassador, Ron Dermer, a Netanyahu confidante and former Republican activist, gave a speech in Atlanta last week that, according to a news account, also called for bucking the administration and enacting stiffer sanctions.
Dermer said new restrictions would further cripple the Iranian economy and help persuade Tehran to abandon any nuclear weapons plans, Globalatlanta.com reported. The Iranians need to “have a freight train of sanctions that are coming right at them,” he explained as he dismissed as a bluff Iranian threats to quit the talks if new sanctions are enacted.
AIPAC, which is usually in synch with Netanyahu, is leading a full court press on Capitol Hill against the administration, and most Jewish organizations have joined the campaign to make sure senators hear from constituents and contributors about the need to back the bill.
In an unusual move, 10 Senate Democrat committee chairs – four of them Jewish – have called on Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) to delay action on the bill. They cited an unclassified intelligence assessment saying, “New sanctions would undermine the prospects for a successful comprehensive agreement with Iran,” reported Laura Rozen of AI-Monitor.
But that may be exactly what Netanyahu – who has made no secret of his disdain for the administration’s attempts to negotiate an end to the Iranian nuclear threat – wants.
The White House has threatened to veto the bill but with the strong support of many Jewish organizations and many Democrats, that’s unlikely. The president would risk being accused of being soft on Iran and siding with the ayatollahs against the friends of Israel.
Which is a big reason the bill has the strong support of Republicans, who reflexively oppose anything this president wants anyway. What’s more, a veto override is not out of the question. So look for a face-saving compromise or for the Senate Democratic leadership to keep it off the floor.
The backers of the new sanctions bill have a very strong ally in Tehran. The government there has been boasting of the great success it has had already in breaking the sanctions and boosting their economy without giving up anything and recognition of their right to enrich uranium. That may play well at home but it poisons the atmosphere here.
The Iranians know Israel’s supporters are the real driving force behind the tough US approach. They have wall-to-wall support on Capitol Hill and pick up more votes every time Iranian leaders spew their hatred for the Jewish state and call for its demise. The worst comes from the very top, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Taken together, these only strengthen the hand of those who question Iranian intentions, and they probably wouldn’t mind being proven right in their suspicions that the won’t surrender their ambitions to build the bomb. For many of these skeptics a military strike is the only solution.
Obama himself gives the talks a 50-50 chance of success, but insists we “lose nothing” by negotiating because “there are verification provisions in place.” We already “had the first halt and, in some cases, some rollback of Iran’s nuclear capabilities,” and “it is very important for us to test whether” Iran wants an agreement.
The Iranians understand that if the talks fail support for military action will grow. And to emphasize that point, the Senate bill contains non-binding language offering Israel full support – some say encouragement – if it chooses to go to war with Iran “in legitimate self-defense.”
Short term, the pro-Israel lobby and its signal callers in the Netanyahu government appear to have a strong hand on Capitol Hill, but in the long run the risks they run are huge – starting with the risk of piling more evidence on to the claim by some that Israel is determined to thwart any diplomatic settlement with Iran and force the United States into another war we cannot afford.
Didn’t anybody learn anything when George W. “Shoot first and ask questions later” Bush went storming into Iraq?