The GOP’s Iran Frustration Signals a Lack of Options in Months Ahead

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., right, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., right, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013.

Republicans are irate over the Obama administration’s handling of Iran—and there’s little they can do to stop it.

Frus­tra­tion with the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hand­ling of Ir­an is reach­ing a boil­ing point on Cap­it­ol Hill, even as Re­pub­lic­ans ac­know­ledge their lim­it­a­tions in try­ing to stop it.

With im­ple­ment­a­tion of a con­tro­ver­sial nuc­le­ar deal with Ir­an un­der­way, the coun­try has dom­in­ated the news over the last week: First cap­tur­ing and re­leas­ing 10 Navy men who in­ad­vert­ently entered Ir­a­ni­an wa­ters after 16 hours, then re­leas­ing five Amer­ic­an host­ages in a pris­on­er ex­change for sev­en of their own and fi­nally, on Sat­urday, meet­ing suf­fi­cient re­quire­ments in curb­ing its nuc­le­ar pro­gram to re­ceive sanc­tions re­lief from the United States and its al­lies.

The mixed bag of news out of Tehran has many in the GOP re­it­er­at­ing their long­stand­ing con­cerns with the nuc­le­ar deal, and even some Demo­crats are rais­ing eye­brows about Ir­an’s in­ten­tions. But in the wake of the deal, which passed through Con­gress last sum­mer des­pite Re­pub­lic­an ef­forts to stop it, there’s little that Con­gress can do uni­lat­er­ally to curb any fu­ture bad ac­tions by Ir­an.

Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans are hampered by an ad­min­is­tra­tion they don’t trust; a United Na­tions that, they say, es­sen­tially ig­nored an Oc­to­ber mis­sile test by Ir­an that vi­ol­ated a 2010 ban; al­lies in Rus­sia and China, as well as Europe, that they don’t trust to fol­low through on ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions against Ir­an, should they be needed in the fu­ture; and a re­gime in Tehran that they see as in­creas­ingly test­ing its power as it be­ne­fits from new sanc­tions re­lief.

Frankly right now there’s not a hell of a lot we can do.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

“Frankly right now there’s not a hell of a lot we can do be­cause [the U.S. and its al­lies] just freed up $100 mil­lion to the Ir­a­ni­ans,” Sen. John Mc­Cain said Tues­day. “We’ll pay a very, very heavy price for that in the fu­ture.”

Mc­Cain ref­er­enced the 10 Amer­ic­an Navy sail­ors who were pho­to­graphed in Ir­a­ni­an cus­tody with their hands over the backs of their necks, kneel­ing down, a photo he car­ried around with him dur­ing the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s re­treat in Bal­timore last week. “I’m amazed, with their hands be­hind their necks and the sec­ret­ary of State says that it’s really a great thing. It’s one of the most dis­grace­ful chapters in U.S. his­tory,” Mc­Cain said Tues­day. “I mean, the [foot­age] of Amer­ic­an ser­vice mem­bers on their knees, that was spread every­where in the Middle East. That was one of the great pro­pa­ganda tri­umphs that the Ir­a­ni­ans have ever had.”

“We’re in a really bad place,” Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee chair­man Bob Cork­er said Wed­nes­day.

Cork­er, who fought stridently to block the Ir­an nuc­le­ar deal last year, ex­pressed frus­tra­tions with the deal in a com­mit­teewide hear­ing on its im­plic­a­tions for the Middle East Wed­nes­day morn­ing. But in an in­ter­view later in the day, Cork­er ar­gued that Con­gress isn’t com­pletely without re­course.

The Sen­ate is ex­pec­ted to take up a reau­thor­iz­a­tion of the Ir­an Sanc­tions Act, which ex­pires late this year, in the next few months, send­ing a sig­nal to the Ir­a­ni­an re­gime and provid­ing a key tool for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to re­in­state sanc­tions against the coun­try should they fail to hold up to the stand­ards of the nuc­le­ar deal.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion pushed back against Con­gress’s de­sire to re­new ISA late last year, warn­ing that it could put the nuc­le­ar deal in jeop­ardy. But sen­at­ors say that now that Im­ple­ment­a­tion Day has ar­rived in Ir­an, they be­lieve the ad­min­is­tra­tion will sup­port them in mov­ing for­ward on a reau­thor­iz­a­tion.

We’re in a really bad place.
Sen. Bob Cork­er, R-Tenn.

As part of the nuc­le­ar deal, the United States has not done away with sanc­tions against Ir­an, but merely paused them al­low­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion to, in Wash­ing­ton’s terms, “snap back” sanc­tions should the coun­try vi­ol­ate the deal.

Sen. Robert Men­en­dez, a Demo­crat who was also highly crit­ic­al of the Ir­an deal, ar­gued Wed­nes­day that early pas­sage of a new ISA bill is im­port­ant so that the U.S. will “have something to snap back to.” Men­en­dez ar­gued that it will take months to alert and pre­pare the na­tion’s al­lies to im­ple­ment new sanc­tions on Ir­an, should they be­come ne­ces­sary. “It’s a year, easy,” Men­en­dez said.

Cork­er said that it’s very pos­sible that Con­gress could levy new sanc­tions against Ir­an in ad­di­tion to ISA this year, adding that par­tic­u­larly “if activ­it­ies con­tin­ue as-is, I’m sure there’ll be a lot of bi­par­tis­an sup­port.”

But for any sanc­tions to go through, they’ll need the sup­port of Pres­id­ent Obama, who ne­go­ti­ated the nuc­le­ar deal with Ir­an that he’s hailed as “his­tor­ic pro­gress through dip­lomacy” in the Middle East. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has said it will sup­port reau­thor­iz­a­tion of ISA be­fore its ex­pir­a­tion in 2016, but it’s un­clear what the fate of oth­er sanc­tions would be.

Fur­ther com­plic­at­ing that mis­sion is the feel­ing, par­tic­u­larly among Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers, that the P5+1 co­ali­tion that se­cured the deal with Ir­an (which in­cludes the U.S., China, France, Rus­sia, the United King­dom as well as Ger­many) will not be there to sup­port the U.S. in levy­ing ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions if and when the time comes.

“I mean you’ve got China and Rus­sia that con­sider Ir­an to be an ally. China’s send­ing them equip­ment, Rus­sia’s work­ing with them in Syr­ia. I don’t an­ti­cip­ate they’re ever go­ing to join in in any kind of snap-back, I just don’t see it hap­pen­ing,” Cork­er said Wed­nes­day. “And we have European quote [un]quote ‘friends’ who are so de­sirous of do­ing busi­ness with Ir­an, I think it’s go­ing to be dif­fi­cult there too.”

“Now Ir­an has the lever­age both from the stand­point of already hav­ing all of their re­sources, but in ad­di­tion to that know­ing that we’re not go­ing to get unity in this P5+1,” Cork­er ad­ded.

Sen. Dav­id Per­due of Geor­gia, a fresh­man mem­ber on the com­mit­tee, took that a step fur­ther, cit­ing it as one of his ma­jor con­cerns about the Ir­an deal mov­ing for­ward. “The co­ali­tion’s already gone away. It’s pretty ob­vi­ous, the co­ali­tion’s gone away,” Per­due said. “So the snap-back pro­vi­sion of this Ir­an nuc­le­ar deal was al­ways built around, well if they vi­ol­ated [the deal], we’ll just snap-back the sanc­tions. It’s not go­ing to be that easy and I think the proof is on the table now.”

In clos­ing Wed­nes­day’s hear­ing, Cork­er said that it will be im­port­ant for Con­gress to con­tin­ue put pres­sure on the ad­min­is­tra­tion, both to hold Ir­an ac­count­able and to come up with a more “com­pre­hens­ive” strategy in the re­gion.

“I think it’s go­ing to be dif­fi­cult—very, very dif­fi­cult in the fu­ture to push back in any mean­ing­ful way against any vi­ol­a­tions that take place,” Cork­er said.

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