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January 23, 2015

Senate Fragmenting over Iran Sanctions, Surge of Alternative Legislation

Washington, DC – As negotiations with the P5+1 and Iran continue, Congress has grown increasingly divided whether to take action before the July 1 extended deadline for a deal. Despite an effort by Senate hawks to introduce legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran, support for new sanctions has diminished in recent weeks under pressure from the White House, which warns that new sanctions risk scuttling the talks. As unified support for new sanctions has failed to materialize on the Hill,  some Senators have begun to offer their own alternative pieces of legislation on the issue.

The main sanctions effort, led by Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) would impose new sanctions that would culminate in a near-total economic embargo by the end of 2015. While the sponsors say the sanctions would only kick in if no deal is reached by July, the White House says it would veto the “Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015” because the bill violates the interim agreement governing the talks and “bolsters the hard-liners” in Tehran.  Some European allies have also come out warning against new sanctions , warning that new legislation would violate the terms of the interim agreement and “might also fracture the international coalition that has made sanctions so effective so far.”

A more “moderate proposal” that would serve as an alternative to new sanctions is reportedly being written by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Rand Paul (R-KY). Although details of the legislation have not been released yet, according to Boxer, the bill would not impose new sanctions but instead give Congress the ability to restore “waived or suspended sanctions against Iran if the president, in consultation with the intelligence community, determines that Iran has violated any existing nuclear agreement.” Both Boxer and Paul opposed Kirk and Menendez’ previous attempt to impose new sanctions when negotiations were underway in 2014.

A third alternative was briefly mentioned by Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on January 21st. He proposed a non-binding resolution that would state Congress’s intent “to enact the kind of crippling sanctions that [they were discussing]” if the negotiations were to fail. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded that “at least on the surface”, the Senator’s proposed nonbinding resolution would be consistent with the approach taken by the administration during the negotiations and would not destabilize the negotiations.

Meanwhile, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) is drafting a proposal that would not impose new sanctions, but instead require any final agreement to receive an up-or-down vote from Congress before taking effect. A previous version of his bill would attempt to block funding for sanctions relief and the implementation of any agreement if Congress votes to disapprove a final deal. The administration has opposed Corker’s bill and said that Congress aleady has a role to play by deciding whether to lift sanctions once a deal has been implemented and tested over time. Some Senate Democrats have suggested they are interested in exploring some means for Congress to have a formal say or review of the deal, but the White House has warned that the Corker proposal would create an “open question” as to whether U.S. diplomats were negotiating with full authority and could uphold their side of any bargain.There has been some discussion of pairing Corker’s bill with the Menendez-Kirk sanctions, which could make it difficult for the bill to attract bipartisan support.

Outside groups have also considered the role that Congress can have in the negotiations and in the aftermath of an agreement. Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, this week released a report on the role that Congress could play in the verification process after an Iranian nuclear deal has been secured. During a presentation of the proposal on Capitol HIll, the authors of the report argued, “increasing sanctions now risks collapsing valuable progress and undermining international support.” Instead, they said, Congress can play a key role in ensuring a final deal is properly monitored and verified. Their proposal would be for Congress to pass legislation allocating more resources for U.S. intelligence to monitor the implementation of the deal, and to create a Congressional Commission on Nuclear Compliance, which would focus on monitoring and verification. This commission would be modeled on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), also known as the Helsinki Commission.

With the numerous proposals now out there, it is uncertain whether the Senate will coalesce around any one proposal in a bipartisan fashion. As it stands, the Menendez-Kirk sanctions bill is still slated for a committee vote next week in spite of having almost no support among Democrats. Whether that bill moves forward on a partisan basis, another bill emerges that can gain support from both parties, or Congress decides to give the negotiations time to play out will likely be decided in the weeks ahead.

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