by Jim Lobe
The sponsors of the latest Kirk-Menendez Iran sanctions bill appear determined to move the legislation as quickly as possible, although it has yet to be formally introduced. Of course, both Obama and visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron came out strongly against any sanctions legislation during their joint press appearance at the White House Friday, warning that approval risked sabotaging not only the ongoing negotiations, but also unity among the P5+1 (U.S., U.K, France, Russia, China plus Germany) themselves. In olden times one would have expected most Republicans to take seriously what a British prime minister–especially one from Winston Churchill’s Conservative Party–has to say about a foreign policy issue of mutual interest. But the combination of their real hatred for Obama and purported love for Israel (and especially for the campaign funds from wealthy Republican Jewish Coalition donors like Sheldon Adelson) is likely to supersede the historic “special relationship” extolled by Churchill himself.
In any event, the best and most up-to-date summary of where things stand was provided in the weekly Legislative Round-Up by Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now (APN), lengthy excerpts of which are reproduced below with permission. (APN legislative round-ups are an excellent source for tracking what’s happening on Capitol Hill on Middle East policy.) Note that there are two parts to her account: the first is regarding an AIPAC draft that circulated earlier this week (and Lara’s analysis of that legislation); the second, an updated version circulated at week’s end apparently in the hope of securing more Democratic support, as well as Lara’s analysis of that draft.
Momentum picked up this week for action on new Iran sanctions in the Senate. As noted in last week’s Round-Up, the current vehicle for these sanctions will be new legislation to be introduced by Sens. Kirk (R-IL) and Menendez (D-NJ) – in a re-run of the Iran sanctions battle of Fall 2013/Winter 2014 (see past editions of the Round-Up for details). As discussed in Section 1, above, it appears that parallel action in the House is likely.
Notably, while the new Kirk-Menendez bill has not been introduced as of this writing, and draft text only began circulating this morning, AIPAC apparently had such a good inside track on the bill that it went ahead and circulated a “summary” of the bill on 1/14. Whether this AIPAC document accurately reflects the substance of the bill text is impossible to judge, since the final text is not yet public. That said, based on the draft text that is circulating today, it seems clear that the “summary” reflects an effort to paint the legislation in the most innocent, anodyne terms possible — as if there is nothing that could possibly be controversial here. Such an approach would be consistent with AIPAC’s reported efforts to convince Senate Democrats to cosponsor the bill, despite White House opposition.
[I have omitted Lara’s analysis of the most problematic elements of the AIPAC text because of it has been replaced by the latest version that she analyzes below.]
What happens next? Presumably Kirk-Menendez will be formally introduced imminently. Then, on 1/20, the Senate Banking Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing to discuss new Iran sanctions. According to multiple sources, this hearing will be followed in short order by a mark-up of Kirk-Menendez in that same committee (not yet officially announced).
It is worth noting the remarkable extent to which the Banking Committee’s GOP leadership appears to be rushing this bill through the oversight process. The official notice for the hearing on 1/20 was only issued on 1/14 (at 4:45pm), apparently violating Senate rules requiring 7-days notice for any hearing (Rule 26 – “4. (a) Each committee (except the Committee on Appropriations and the Committee on the Budget) shall make public announcement of the date, place, and subject matter of any hearing to be conducted by the committee on any measure or matter at least one week before the commencement of that hearing unless the committee determines that there is good cause to begin such hearing at an earlier date.”).
Such hurried action on a bill this controversial (the President has issued a veto threat) and with such huge implications for U.S. national security is remarkable, to say the least. Given that the text of the bill has not even been introduced yet, it means, among other things, that Committee members (who have already left Washington for the Martin Luther King long weekend, and will only return to Washington on 1/20) will have very little time to study the bill or seek further information/views on it before the hearing and mark-up. It also means that opponents of the bill — be they in the Senate, the Administration, or the public — will have a far less opportunity to challenge the pro-sanctions, AIPAC-backed narrative as this bill rushes forward.
Updated analysis of Kirk-Menendez text (as of 3pm, 1/16)
In some annoying corollary to Murphy’s Law, shortly after posting analysis of the draft text of the new Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill (in which it was noted that the text should not be considered final or authoritative), a newer draft of the bill began circulating (underscoring the oddness of AIPAC circulating a “summary” of the bill while it was/is apparently still being tweaked). Bearing in mind that this new text should still not be considered final or authoritative, the following are some observations about this newer text:
- Existing sanctions don’t snap back, but additional sanctions relief remains elusive: This newer text repeats language in the earlier draft to the effect that while following an agreement (and required notification to Congress) the President may not waive any sanctions on Iran until Congress has had time to review the deal and the Administration’s plans to verify Iranian compliance. The newer version includes language – completely absent in the earlier draft – stipulating that this ban on waiving sanctions does not apply to sanctions previously waived under the JPOA. Notably, the updated version of the bill still stipulates that the Congressional review period during which the President is barred from waiving any new sanctions must last “30 days of continuous session of Congress,” and defines “continuous session” as not including periods where Congress is in recess for more than 3 days. What does this mean? Looking at the House Calendar for 2105 and counting the days, it means that if the President sends the details of a deal and the required “verification assessment” to Congress on July 5, no new sanctions may be waived until at least November 13.
- Automatic new sanctions if no agreement or further delay: Like the earlier version, this text stipulates that new sanctions would automatically be imposed, escalating over a period of months, in the event that the Presidents fails to send to Congress the details of a comprehensive deal reached with Iran and the required “verification assessment” by July 5. This appears to apply even in the case of an additional extension or the sides agreeing to a period to iron out the details of implementation of an agreement. It also stipulates that in the event that the President fails to send to Congress the details of a comprehensive deal reached with Iran and the required “verification assessment” by July 5, any sanctions previously waived by the President under the JPOA will automatically snap back on.
- Laying out far-reaching parameters for a deal: Like in the previous version, the Sense of Congress included in the bill is, by definition, non-binding. It nonetheless sends a strong statement of Congressional intent. And this Sense of Congress, like the previous version, sends a statement of hardline red lines in order for any deal to be acceptable to Congress (and the lengthy review period imposed by this bill clearly implies that Congress will be reviewing any agreement to determine if it meets its standards – and implies that if it does not meet its standards, there will be concrete consequences).
- Promising that sanctions will continue, regardless of a deal. While, like in the previous version, the Sense of Congress is by definition non-binding, it nonetheless sends a strong statement of Congressional intent. And this Sense of Congress once again makes clear that even if there is a deal that verifiably addresses U.S. concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, Congress will seek to continue to impose far-reaching sanctions against Iran for other reasons.
- Planting the seeds for a deal to far apart: The key provisions of this updated version of the bill, even amended, are a clear poison pill for any agreement. In effect, this bill undermines negotiations and weakens U.S. negotiators. Rather than offering more sanctions relief to Iran in exchange for a deal, it prohibits it, and establishes a 4-month period during which the President is explicitly deprived of any authority to deliver anything to Iran beyond what was already delivered during negotiations. Assuming Iran would agree to a deal under such circumstances – which is doubtful – this bill sets into motion a dynamic in which Iranian opponents of a diplomacy will have an easy time arguing against the deal, and in which mischief-makers in Congress will have ample time to push ahead with new legislation rejecting a deal or putting new conditions on its implementation and limitations on sanctions relief. And given the Sense of Congress in this bill – which makes the case for continued Iran sanctions even after a nuclear deal, it is not a stretch to imagine that members of Congress would adopt such an approach during this 4 month waiting period.