December 4, 2014

Unexpected Backlash to New Iran Sanctions in Senate Committee

A new Iran sanctions bill being floated by Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) would force the P5+1 into a weaker deal or backfire by leading to Iranian nuclear expansion, according to experts handpicked by Menendez to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. The witnesses’ criticism of the “trigger” sanctions approach came as an unexpected shock given that the witnesses had all been critical of the talks and generally supportive of the Senator’s hardline approach. 

Triggered Sanctions

Sen. Menendez asked the witnesses about the viability of a triggered sanctions bill that would go into effect in late March if the parties fail to reach a framework agreement by that time.  Dr. Gary Samore, President of the hawkish and pro-sanctions United Against a Nuclear Iran, warned against the idea, stating “some in Iran might actually welcome such legislation because they could very well calculate that it will put more pressure on the P5+1 to make additional concessions in order to get a deal to avoid having the old sanctions imposed and then going back to the previous situation.”

David Albright, President of the Institute for Science and International Security and a frequent critic of negotiations, also warned that “triggered sanctions could backfire.”  According to Albright, “Triggered sanctions, where they come into effect in a mandatory way, is perceived by the Iranians as putting a gun to their head and leads them to put together trigger-advancements in their nuclear program.”

In an exchange with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Dr. Samore also warned that U.S. allies would not support triggered sanctions.  According to Samore, “new sanctions legislation that imposed a hard deadline and took any discretion out of the hands of the administration to impose those sanctions would not be supported by our allies.”  When Paul asked whether our allies would support legislation mandating full Iranian dismantlement, as included in a recent bill from Sens. Menendez and Mark Kirk (R-IL), Samore replied “No, because I don’t think they believe it’s achievable.”

Congressional Disapproval

Dr. Samore also cautioned that legislation setting up a Congressional vote of disapproval following a final deal would be unwise given the discord between Congress and the administration over both negotiations and the interim agreement.  Sen. Corker has already proposed such legislation in the 113th Congress, though it has yet to receive any Democratic sponsors. 

Dr. Samore warned that Congress appears to be “setting out terms for an agreement which the administration doesn’t think they could achieve through this negotiation.”  According to Samore, “As long as there’s such a divergence between what would constitute an acceptable deal, I think it’s difficult to come to an agreement on whether Congress should put itself in a position of approving an agreement.”  Albright added to Samore’s warnings, stating “The fact that Congress was not on board [with the interim agreement] was a severely corrosive factor, so I think it’s important the administration works with Congress to make sure this is a united effort.” 

Legislation teeing up a vote of disapproval would also be opposed by our allies, according to Samore, who stated “I do think our allies are nervous about Congress acting independently of the administration.” 

Joint Plan of Action 

When pressed by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) on whether the witnesses would support scrapping the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) by returning to increased sanctions and Iranian enrichment up to 20%, both Albright and Samore stated that they supported the extension.  The third witness at the hearing, the neoconservative Michael Doran, did not support scrapping the agreement when pressed by Kaine, but instead claimed that the U.S. should walk away from negotiations while asking Iran to stay within the JPOA.

Dr. Samore, in the exchange with Sen. Paul, stated “if it were not for the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), the Iranian program would be more advanced.” Samore also warned that if the process falls apart “it’s much better for us if it’s Iran that loses patience first and reneges or violates the deal than for us to be the one.”  Under the JPOA, the P5+1 have agreed not to impose new nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. 

Despite hawkish positioning from Sens. Menendez, Corker and others on the committee, there were strong statements of support for the negotiations and JPOA.  Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) contrasted ongoing diplomacy with the hawkish approach of the George W. Bush administration, arguing “by not talking to the Iranians and just passing down sanctions, they went from a handful of centrifuges to thousands of centrifuges, such that they are only a handful of months from breakout.”  Sen. Paul, as well, warned that the interim agreement and negotiations are far better than the alternatives of no constraints on Iran’s nuclear program and the threat of war.  Paul warned, “Once we have war with Iran, there’ll be no more inspections.   Once the first bomb drops, you’ll never have another inspection inside of Iran.” 

While new Iran legislation is unlikely before Congress breaks for the holidays next week, a new Republican-majority Senate could consider sanctions or other ill-advised measures in January or shortly thereafter.

Image source: New York Times

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