And Mikulski Makes 34. Now What?

by Jim Lobe

As we predicted yesterday, Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski has said that she will vote against any resolution to reject the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA), thus making it certain that a veto cast by Obama against such a resolution will be sustained.

The White House, the Senate Democratic leadership (notably Minority Leader Reid and Minority Whip Dick Durbin), and the many independent organizations and groups that have rallied behind the July 14 agreement between the P5+1 and Iran have won a huge victory over the combined forces of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Republican Senate caucus, and the multi-multi-million-dollar campaign mounted by the opposition, notably the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (and its spin-off, the Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran), the Republican Jewish Coalition, and United Against Nuclear Iran (newly headed by former Sen. Joe Lieberman), among others.

But no one should believe for a minute that this marks the end of the struggle.

Supporters of the JCPOA are now focusing on persuading at least seven of the 10 remaining undecided Democratic senators – Bennet (CO), Blumenthal (CT), Booker (NJ), Cantwell (WA), Cardin (MD),  Heitkamp (ND), Manchin (WV), Peters (MI) Warner (VA), and Wyden (OR) – to join their 34 colleagues and thus saving Obama from having to use his veto against a rejection resolution.

Of these, Booker, Cardin, and Wyden are considered by the administration to be the most difficult “gets,” although Manchin is also believed to be very much on the fence. While reportedly persuaded on the merits of the JCPOA, the West Virginia senator is very worried about the potential political fallout in his very anti-Obama, coal-dependent state. Observers also note that Booker faces a serious dilemma: if his political ambitions are confined to New Jersey, he could safely join Sen. Robert Menendez in voting with the Republicans. But if his ambitions include national office—and political observers have long pegged him as very ambitious indeed—rallying behind Obama makes much more sense given the intensity with which core Democratic organizations like MoveOn and Credo Action have mobilized behind the agreement. Cardin, who, as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is considered the most important “get,” is also seen as genuinely conflicted. The fact that fellow-Marylander Mikulski and Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, who also serves on the Foreign Relations Committee and has been among the most skeptical of the JCPOA among Democrats, have sided with the White House may tilt the balance. The administration has also not yet given up on Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the lone uncommitted Republican.

Meanwhile, her Republican colleagues are reportedly working on new sanctions legislation that, as Paul Pillar observed Monday, will likely involve restoring some of the sanctions that will be eased under the JCPOA. But the new sanctions will come under a new label, such as human rights, “terrorism” and Iran’s support for Hezbollah or Hamas or the Assad regime, and/or money-laundering targeted particularly at the IRGC and the banks—both Iranian and foreign—that do business with it. A related possibility is to pass new legislation on existing non-nuclear sanctions in ways that reduce or eliminate the president’s authority to waive them in the national interest. Indeed, Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) called in an op-ed published in The Hill Wednesday (“What About Anti-Terror Sanctions?”) for Congress to do just that “immediately.”

Why? The immediate purpose of codifying clearly which individuals and entities are subject to non-nuclear sanctions would be to prevent a U.S. president from simply un-designating them for political reasons, thereby effectively lifting sanctions against these individuals and organizations.

Although Kagan explicitly denies that his suggestion would be a “back-door effort to kill the deal,” any new sanctions legislation, needless to say, would once again put in question Washington’s good faith in implementing the JCPOA, not only in Tehran, but in the other P5+1 capitals as well.

Meanwhile, a much more detailed draft bill is circulating that is designed (almost certainly by AIPAC) to appeal to those Democrats who may be eager to “kiss and make up” after their defiance of the most powerful Israel lobby group (whose reputation for omnipotence just took a very heavy hit) and its donors. Although most of the bill appears to be innocuous and consistent with the administration’s own intentions, it also contains a number of “poison pills,” which, if approved, appear calculated to raise new obstacles to implementation and Tehran’s confidence that the U.S. will fully comply with both the spirit and the letter of the JCPOA.

With proposed banking sanctions, for example, it appears to do what Kagan and the policy director of the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), Juan Zarate, have urged with respect to codifying existing non-nuclear sanctions and reducing or eliminating the president’s waiver authority. It also would set up a process for “expedited procedures” for Congress to pass new terrorism sanctions against Iran under certain circumstances, and also create a coordinator for compliance whose responsibilities would not only be to oversee Iran’s implementation of the JCPOA but also report on non-nuclear issues outside the scope of the agreement.

Yet another provision would authorize the delivery to Israel of Washington’s most powerful Massive Ordinance Penetration munitions (MOPs) and the means to deliver them against Iran’s nuclear facilities, a move that administration officials have long said they strongly oppose. This would be one part of a much- enhanced package of military assistance for Israel.

Other provisions appear designed to “renegotiate” certain provisions of the JCPOA; for example, by eliminating the exemption of any contracts agreed to between Iran and foreign companies during the implementation phase in the event that sanctions are “snapped back.” It also requires Iran to abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s (NPT) Additional Protocol as of “adoption day,” even if the Iranian parliament has not yet ratified the Protocol.

We hear that the sponsors intend to push this through Congress as a companion to the disapproval resolution. The idea is to enable nervous Democrats to demonstrate their strong support for Israel and their undiluted distrust and hostility toward Iran. The fear is that if this measure isn’t passed now, then it could prove much more difficult to pass once Iran begins to implement the agreement.

Here is a summary of the draft bill which, as I understand it, is still very much a work in progress.

The Iran Policy Oversight Act of 2015

Building on the bipartisan commitment to oversight outlined in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 – PL 114-17

Sets the U.S.’s going-forward Iran policy regarding the nuclear issue: The United States will never permit Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, and all options available to the United States, including the military option, remain available.

Clarifies key interpretive issues in the JCPOA, which would also apply to subsequent agreements, including:

No sanctions relief will be provided to Iran until it meets its commitments related to resolution of PMD [possible military dimensions] issues.

Any production of HEU by Iran would be a violation of the JCPOA.

Nothing in the JCPOA limits or curtails Congress’ ability to pass sanctions legislation addressed to legitimate foreign policy purposes, including sanctions related to terrorism, human rights, and Iran’s ballistic missile activities.

There is no “grandfather clause” that would shield ongoing sanctionable activities by foreign firms in the event of a snap-back of Iran sanctions.

The JCPOA commits Iran to abide by all the provisions of the Additional Protocol of the NPT as of “adoption day,” regardless of whether the Iranian parliament approves the Additional Protocol.

Requires the Administration to submit:

A ten-year regional strategy for Countering Conventional and Asymmetric Iranian Activity and Threats in the Middle East and North Africa within six months, and every two years thereafter,

Report[s] 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 R&D activities as well as estimated nuclear weapons capability breakout time, and

A report addressing the IAEA’s resolution of the PMD issue.

Explicitly authorizes additional, specific security assistance to Israel, including bunker-busting MOPs, to ensure the President can and should take all necessary and appropriate measures to ensure Israel has the means and capacity to defend itself against nuclear and other threats from Iran.

Continues in effect banking sanctions addressed to ballistic missile proliferation and terrorism sanctions, unless the President certifies that designated financial institutions have ceased their support for missile proliferation and terrorism. Also continues in effect sanctions related to human rights abuses.

Requires the President to seek multilateral arrangements to both maintain control of exports related to conventional arms and ballistic missiles to Iran, and ensure an effective snap-back policy to respond to any non-compliance incidents as well as breach of the JCPOA by Iran.

Puts into place expedited procedures for consideration of new terrorism sanctions against Iran if Iran:

1) directs or conducts an act of terrorism against the U.S., or

2) substantially increases its operational or financial support for a terrorist organization that threatens U.S. interests or allies.

Requires the President to appoint a Coordinator for Compliance within the Department of State to:

1) coordinate all activities related to implementation of the JCPOA and any subsequent related agreements, and

2) monitor human rights abuses and activities relating to support for acts of international terrorism by the government of Iran.

As to what the administration already has in mind in order to offer Israel, the JTA’s Ron Kampeas laid it out in an article on the subject Tuesday afternoon. You’ll note that MOPs is not one of the items on the list.

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.