December 12, 2013

Congress Sees the Light After Busy Week on Iran

Kerry sanctions hearingWashington, DC – Plans in the House to pass a resolution, backed by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), opposing the interim Iran nuclear deal and calling for new sanctions have been defeated, according to Congressional sources. The resolution will not come up this week, which is the last week the House will be in session this year.  The Minority Whip, Steny Hoyer (D-MD) apparently withdrew his support for the measure on Thursday morning.

Further, plans to force a vote on new sanctions in the Senate appear increasingly unlikely, with key lawmakers rallying in support of the nuclear agreement in Iran and the administration mounting a strong defense.  

Despite representatives of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) flying in this week to lobby Congress for new sanctions on Iran, it appears that Congress will conclude its business for the year without passing new sanctions or any rebuke of the historic nuclear agreement struck last month.

With sanctions blocked, at least temporarily, there will likely be a push in the weeks ahead for non-binding resolutions to define the endgame with Iran.  Additionally, any final deal with Iran will require sanctions to be lifted, which will likely require Congressional support.

Sanctions Stall in the Senate

Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew held a closed-door briefing with Senators yesterday warning them against new sanctions.  Wendy Sherman, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and David Cohen, Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the Treasury Department, also testified before the Banking Committee on the nuclear deal.

During the Banking Committee hearing, Chairman Tim Johnson (D-SD) announced that he has a sanctions bill ready but will not move forward with it unless Iran violates the terms of the agreement. Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) had threatened to force a vote on their own sanctions bill that would bypass the normal committee process, but that scenario appears unlikely as more Senators speak out against new sanctions and in cautious support of the interim deal.  Sen. Menendez announced he was concerned about the administration’s thinking on the endgame and that he would consider moving forward with a non-binding resolution clarifying the Senate’s expectations for a final deal.

Noting that the President has said that new sanctions would not enhance his leverage for a final diplomatic deal, Chairman Johnson warned that “this may well be the last best chance to resolve this crisis by diplomacy.”  Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) also weighed in in support of the deal, arguing that it is a “promising first step” to further U.S. goals in the region.

Speaking on the floor of the Senate yesterday, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) delivered a strong defense of the deal and warned that new sanctions would threaten the deal and our ability to resolve the issue diplomatically.  Rockefeller asked his colleagues, “If there is any chance at all that new sanctions right now might disrupt that agreement, or jeopardize a future agreement – why on earth would we risk it?” 

Secretary Kerry Testifies in the House

Speaking before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Tuesday, Secretary Kerry defended the deal in front of skeptical committee members, stating, “We’re at a crossroads, really hinge points, in history. One path could lead to an enduring resolution in the international community’s’ concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. The other path could lead to continued hostility and potentially to conflict—and I don’t have to tell you that these are high stakes.” 

Kerry rejected the notion that new sanctions would provide the U.S. more leverage in negotiations, saying it would threaten international unity and was unnecessary. “They know that if this fails, sanctions will be increased. We’ve said it 100 times. And you all have said it 100 times. And they know you’re yearning to go do it. But you don’t need to do it. It is actually gratuitous in the context of this situation, because you can do it in a week.” But, Kerry said, he doesn’t “want to threaten the unity we have with respect to this [diplomatic] approach, particularly when it doesn’t cost us a thing to go through this process knowing that we could put sanctions in place additionally in a week — and we would be there with you seeking to do it.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY) both criticized the deal for not calling on Iran to abandon enrichment. But Kerry, who in the past criticized the Bush Administration’s “zero-enrichment” demand as “bombastic diplomacy,” explained that enrichment was not the issue. The U.S., he said, would secure “the best comprehensive agreement that absolutely guarantees that the program, whatever it is to be, is peaceful, and that we have expanded by an enormous amount the breakout time.” 

Kerry also indicated that negotiating for any further concessions would have meant that Iran’s nuclear program would continued to progress. The interim deal, he noted, “halts the progress and rolls it back in certain places for the first time in 10 years” and that “Iran will not be able to commission the Arak reactor during the course of this interim first-step agreement.”

Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) questioned why Congress could not pass additional sanctions at this time that would be triggered at a later date, which Kerry said would violate the interim agreement and fracture international efforts regarding Iran. “ Even if the sanctions are not imposed, it implies a lack of faith in the process and an unwillingness to play by the rules that our partners are playing by,” Kerry said. 

Representatives Ros Lehtinen, Ted Poe (R-TX), and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) also brought up the status of Mujaheddin-E Khalq, who are residing in Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty in Iraq. Just as in previous hearings on Iran sanctions, members of the MEK were in the audience in their moniker matching yellow jackets. Rohrabacher said he is introducing legislation to allow MEK members to seek asylum in the United States. It is technically illegal for many MEK members to come to the U.S. because the group was designated as a terrorist organization, and attempts to resettle the individuals in third countries has been blocked in part because MEK leadership will not allow the group to be split up or for individuals to participate in the UN resettlement process.

A day after the hearing, a number of representatives took to the floor to defend the nuclear deal and warn against new sanctions, including Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), David Price (D-NC), and Peter Welch (D-VT).




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