Cardin Finally Introduces Still-Weaker Iran Oversight Bill

by Jim Lobe

After a couple of weeks of negotiations with fellow Democrats and (indirectly) with the White House, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) has finally introduced the latest version of his “Iran Policy Oversight Act of 2015.” It is co-sponsored by eight of his most AIPAC-sensitive colleagues, including Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) who, like Cardin, voted with Republicans to reject the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) last month.

The new version is significantly softened from Cardin’s original draft, which included a number of “poison pills” presumably designed to sabotage implementation of the JCPOA. A second draft obtained and published by LobeLog last week eliminated the most problematic elements of the first.

The new version further softened the bill—indeed, it softened the bill so much that I doubt Republicans will rally behind it—although it retained intact one section (Sec. 9 in the second draft) that could prove very problematic: specifically, the section that provides expedited congressional approval of new sanctions against Iran if the president determines that Tehran has “directed or conducted an act of international terrorism against the United States” or “has substantially increased its operational or financial support for a terrorist organization that threatens the interests or allies of the United States.” As I’ve noted in previous posts, this provision could easily invite third parties that have a strong interest—and there are many—in sabotaging any détente between Washington and Tehran to undertake a false-flag operation.

And, of course, the spirit of the proposed legislation treats Iran as an adversary that must by all means be contained (see Section 4, for example). This attitude can only strengthen hardliners in Tehran and undermine efforts by President Rouhani to use the JCPOA as “something that can be built upon for other agreements” and cooperation between the U.S. and Iran, as he put it at a breakfast for selected media representatives (including LobeLog) in New York last Friday.

Besides Cardin and Schumer, co-sponsors include Michael Bennet (D-CO), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Chris Coons (D-DE), Mark Warner (D-VA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Brian Schatz (D-HI). Each is quoted in a press release in praise of the new bill, which, they all stressed, was designed only to “strengthen” the agreement and enhance Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME).

Significantly, the other two Democrats (besides Cardin and Schumer) who opposed the JCPOA and presumably must have asked to co-sponsor it—Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV)—have not signed on. Their absence, as well as that of a single Republican, suggests that the GOP will not likely get behind it. Indeed, it may not even get beyond consideration by the Foreign Relations Committee where Cardin serves as the ranking Democrat. However, if he gets Chairman Bob Corker’s (R-TN) backing (in the interests of bipartisanship), I could imagine its passage with a majority of Democrats and a handful of “moderate” Republicans. I’ve asked the White House and AIPAC what their respective positions on the bill are but haven’t heard back yet. Word on Capitol Hill is that AIPAC is neutral for the moment but would like to see the bill incorporated into a larger package that the group hopes to push when Netanyahu comes to town in the second week of November. AIPAC may once again find itself whipsawed between its desire to retain its severely tattered bipartisan image and pressure by right-wing Republicans, Bill Kristol, and the Republican Jewish Coalition to reject any acquiescence in the JCPOA. Of course, any hint that the White House can live with the bill would probably ensure Republican rejection at this point.

Initial reaction in the pro-JCPOA camp was mixed. J Street, for example, endorsed the bill, insisting that its provisions

closely track the policy prescriptions J Street put forward immediately after last month’s key votes on the accord in Congress. Comprehensive reporting on Iran’s activities, enhancement of the President’s existing non-nuclear sanctions powers and further strengthening already unprecedented US security and intelligence cooperation with Israel are steps that will bolster the agreement and its critical objective of ensuring that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon.

The National Iranian American Council (NIAC), on the other hand, came out in opposition:

This bill, while an improvement over earlier drafts of the legislation, appears aimed at providing political cover to legislators so that they can assert their hawkish bona fides on Iran. At best, the wrongheaded measures included in the bill are empty symbolic gestures aimed at reasserting a more confrontational posture in the region. At worst, they are an actionable policy agenda that would undermine the gains secured by diplomacy and set us on a path to unravelling the nuclear deal.

…In fact, moving forward with the bill threatens to return the U.S. and Iran to a negative tit for tat that could undermine implementation of the nuclear deal. As a result, legislators should withhold support for this unhelpful bill and instead urge the administration to pursue diplomacy to address remaining issues of concern with Iran, including the crisis in Syria, Iranian human rights and imprisoned Americans in Iran.

Here’s Cardin’s summary of the key provisions, which will be followed by my quick listing of the changes in the text from the second draft.                                                                                       

  • Sets future U.S. policy on Iran regarding nuclear issues: Iran does not have an inherent right to uranium enrichment; the United States will deter Iran from destabilizing regional activity and support for and acts of terrorism; and all of the options available to the United States, including the military option, remain available to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability.
  • Explicitly authorizes additional, specific security assistance to Israel and cooperation with Israel, including:
    • Applicable ordnance and delivery systems to counter non-peaceful nuclear activities by Iran to ensure the president can take all necessary and appropriate measures to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge and effectively deter conventional and nuclear threats.
    • Any additional foreign military financing as may be needed to address threats from Iran; and
    • Acceleration of co-development of missile defense systems and other cooperation to bolster the effectiveness of Israel’s conventional deterrent.
  • Requires the administration to submit: Continues in effect sanctions on Iranian entities and individuals engaged in ballistic or cruise missile proliferation and terrorism.  Also continues in effect sanctions related to human rights abuses.
    • A regional strategy for Countering Conventional and Asymmetric Iranian Activity and Threats in the Middle East and North Africa due January 2016, and every two years thereafter;
    • Reports detailing Iran’s use of funds received through sanctions relief and changes in funding for regional activities and support for terrorism;
    • Reports detailing Iran’s nuclear research & development activities as well as estimated nuclear weapon capability breakout time; and
    • A report addressing the IAEA’s report on the Potential Military Dimension (PMD) issue.
  • Puts in place expedited procedures for consideration of new terrorism sanctions against Iran if Iran (1) directs or conducts an act of terrorism against the United States; or (2) substantially increases its operational or financial support for a terrorist organization that threatens U.S. interests or allies.
  • Sets US policy on effective re-imposition of sanctions, including US readiness to enforce any violation of the JCPOA as well as joining with our European allies to re-impose sanctions in a calibrated manner in the event Iran violates the JCPOA incrementally.
  • Provides a Sense of the Congress regarding Iran’s ballistic or cruise missile capability, that Iran should continue to be prohibited from undertaking any activity related to a ballistic or cruise missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic or cruise missile technology, and that UN member states should take all necessary measures to prevent the transfer of technology or technical assistance in these areas.
  • Requires the president to appoint a coordinator within the Department of State to lead an interagency effort to (1) ensure that the nuclear steps Iran committed to in the JCPOA are fully implemented and verified; and (2) address Iran’s support for acts of international terrorism, ballistic and cruise missile proliferation, and human rights abuses.
  • Authorizes funding for the International Atomic Energy Agency for fiscal years 2016 through 2026 necessary to meet the US annual funding commitments to the IAEA as well as the US portion of additional funds needed for the IAEA to fulfill [sic] its verification responsibilities under the JCPOA.
    • Requires a report outlining efforts with international partners to ensure the IAEA receives the full additional $10,600,000 per year necessary to fulfill [sic] its verification responsibilities under the JCPOA, and identifying an impediments to achieving such funding.
  • Clarifies key interpretive issues in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) including:
    • No sanctions relief will be provided to Iran until it meets its commitments related to resolution of Potential Military Dimension (PMD) issues.
    • Any action by Iran to treat the legitimate imposition of sanctions by the US based on support for terrorism, abuses of human rights, or Iran’s ballistic or cruise missile activities as grounds to cease performing its commitments under the JCPOA would not be valid and would be inconsistent with the terms of the JCPOA.
    • There is no “grandfather clause” that would shield ongoing sanctionable activities by foreign firms in the event of a snap-back of Iran sanctions.

As noted above, the bill, including Section 9, is mostly unchanged. So the following the differences I found in a necessarily cursory review:

Section 3. State of Policy on Deterrence is fundamentally the same but is broken down into three parts. The second part is new and thus emphasizes the importance of Iran’s regional actions and alleged support for terrorism. It now reads:

(1) that Iran does not have an inherent right to uranium enrichment;

(2) to deter Iran from destabilizing regional activity and support for and acts of terrorism; and

(3) that all of the options available to the United States, including the military option, remain available to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability.

Section 5. Authorization of Additional Security Assistance to Israel. In this section, the first paragraph (a)(1) is rephrased. It provides the president the authority to take all measures to “enhance” rather to “ensure” Israel’s QME, etc. It also deleted the specific example for which the U.S. should provide assistance permitting Israel to counter non-peaceful nuclear activities by Iran—“such as the production of highly enriched uranium for non-peaceful purposes.”

In paragraph (d)(2), not only is the president “authorized to accelerate co-development of missile defense systems with Israel,” but, in addition, he is “authorized to …support Israeli development of missile defense systems.” AIPAC’s fingerprints seem to be on this addition to the bill.

Section 6. Continuation in Effect of Sanctions with Respect to Iranian Entities and Individuals Engaged in Ballistic or Cruise Missile Proliferation, or Terrorism. This section is substantially softened from the previous drafts in that it no longer requires presidential “certification” to appropriate congressional committees before the president can lift existing sanctions against Iranian “persons” accused of supporting missile programs or international terrorism. Instead, it requires only public “notification” by the president—along with a “justification in writing for removing sanctions” against such persons—a much simpler and more discreet process much less susceptible to congressional review or interference.

Section 7. Continuation in Effect of Sanctions with Respect to Human Rghts Abuses by Iran. This section is also changed from requiring a “certification” to Congress to public “notification.”

Section 12. Reporting on Resolution of Iran’s Past Military Dimensions of Iran’s Nuclear Program. This section has been further softened from the original, which clearly violated confidentiality agreements between the IAEA and its member states. The requirement (second version) that the administration submit a report to Congress on “the methods and results of environmental sampling at the Parchin military base” has been substantially modified with the specific reference to Parchin now deleted altogether. (Since IAEA Director General Amano visited Parchin last month, the issue is fading fast.) The section now requires the president to submit a “detailed report on the IAEA’s report to the [IAEA’s] Board of Governors” and “a briefing, in a classified setting as necessary, on how outstanding issues were resolved by the IAEA.”

Section 13. Multilateral Diplomacy for an Effective Re-Imposition of Sanctions. This section has been completely replaced and now reads:

(a) FINDING.—There is a wide range of national and multilateral tools, including the re-imposition of sanctions, available to the United States and United States partners, including European allies, should Iran fail to meet its JCPOA commitments.


(1) The United States is prepared to enforce any violation of the JCPOA.

(2) The United States should continue to ensure that a range of national and multilateral tools remain available to respond to non-performance by Iran of its JCPOA commitments.

(3) The United States will continue to leverage the commitments of its European allies to join in re-imposing sanctions in a calibrated manner as appropriate in the event Iran violates the JCPOA incrementally.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.


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