The real fight over Iran sanctions isn’t between the White House and the new Republican majority in Congress — it’s a no-holds-barred, intra-party battle that, until now, has largely been fought behind closed doors and between the lines of statements to the press in the U.S. Capitol and capitals worldwide.
Iran has long been a divisive issue in U.S. politics, but competing proposals for how to address Iran’s nuclear ambitions are exposing fresh infighting and making strange bedfellows. Iran-hawk Democrats and Obama-bashing Republicans want to ratchet up pressure with looming sanctions. An alliance of historically hardliner GOP members and moderates from both parties want final say but diplomacy first. And libertarian tea-party types and liberal anti-war Democrats are caught between. As the Obama administration pleads, “hold your fire,” these lawmakers are racing to whip up support; the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs says he wants a markup of the sanctions legislation on Thursday and a vote as soon as possible.
Add to that entreaties from heads of state and top diplomats – calls from British Prime Minister David Cameron and op-eds from European foreign affairs secretaries, countered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 3 address to a joint session of Congress and apocalyptic warnings from other concerned neighbors in the region. It’s a high-stakes preview of 2015’s big national security battles: anything but typical.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is usually aligned with the Iran hawks but is pushing an alternative to sanctions, told reporters, “A good deal would be a blessing, a bad deal would be a nightmare — it’s worth negotiating.”
“Even though I don’t think sanctions should be seen as a deal breaker — if there’s any chance that it would be, I’m willing to forgo a vote on sanctions … Just bring it to the Congress so we get to look at it,” he said. “Because if you get a bad deal, you’re going to have a nuclear proliferation race.”
On his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Qatar, Graham said, “The Saudis, everybody told us without any equivocation — if you allow Iranians nuclear capability, they’re going to want what the Iranians have and more. They’re not going to live under the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.”
In November, a year-long effort failed to produce a comprehensive deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program, forcing an international coalition of negotiators, the P5+1, to extend the deadline another seven months. The extension also kept in place an interim agreement by which Iran agreed to stop building new centrifuges and to dilute existing nuclear fuel — in return guaranteeing some $700 million a month in relief from debilitating economic sanctions.
The final deadline for a deal is June 30, but lawmakers are pushing competing proposals to pressure the Iranians before the next benchmark on March 24. Just days after a largely unproductive next round of talks, President Barack Obama used his State of the Union to reissue a veto threat to any such legislation.
“New sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails – alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again,” Obama said. “The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom.”
Iran hawks have revived legislation from Sens. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., which failed last year despite broad bipartisan support. The “Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015” includes increasingly strict sets of sanctions that would not start until July 6 — and only if Iran walks away, fails to reach a final agreement, or falls short of requirements.
“If sanctions aren’t in place, [Obama’s] only options will be a military option, or to accept a nuclear-armed Iran,” Menendez, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Star-Ledger, calling sanctions “a third way.”
Republicans now have a 54-seat majority in the Senate, and likely the six Democratic supporters they need to survive a filibuster, considering senior Democrats such as Menendez and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer advocate stronger sanctions. But facing relentless pressure from the administration, several key players are hesitating.
Schumer, the number three Democrat and an original sponsor of the Kirk-Menendez bill, kept his comments brief Thursday: “I’m all for Kirk-Menendez, and we’re figuring out the timing.” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., also an original co-sponsor, deflected questions. “It’s [Menendez’s] bill and I support the bill,” he repeated. “The question is when we will consider it.”
If Democrats push off votes until March to drum up more support, they could give themselves cover with the White House without sacrificing too much credibility among the pro-Israel lobby. It’s unclear whether the sanctions measure can reach the 67-vote threshold to overcome a presidential veto, and other lawmakers, such as Graham and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., are lobbying hard for alternatives.
Their draft would require any final deal to come before Congress for an up-or-down vote. Corker, the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said it’s built on existing “123 agreements” by which Congress approves sharing civilian nuclear technology with another country. White House officials argue they are not negotiating a treaty, and thus it is not subject to congressional ratification.
Similar legislation introduced in July had no Democratic co-sponsors, but Graham, Corker and other backers have said colleagues across the aisle see their current proposal as more palatable. Graham said, “It is really taking off.”
“We’re talking to Democrats who feel like they don’t want to be part of voting on sanctions that would break apart our last, best chance to find a diplomatic solution, but that are also in the camp, like most of us, they want to look at a deal,” Graham said. If it came down to it, he said, “I would prefer our alternative.”
“I applaud both Kirk and Menendez for their previous efforts to get Iran to the table,” Corker said. “But in spite of it … I think this other route is a far stronger route.”
“Whether it’s the intelligence agencies in Israel, people we deal with around the world, I’ve had no one yet say that Congress weighing in on this deal would do anything but strengthen the administration’s hand,” he said. “I would think any Democrat or any Republican who takes national security seriously — in the House and the Senate — would want the opportunity to vote up or down on this deal. It’s going to affect multiple generations. It’s going to affect the world. It’s going to affect us. It’s going to affect stability in the Middle East.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., an original co-sponsor of both the Kirk-Menendez and Corker-Graham legislation, said, “I obviously feel very strongly about the advise-and-consent bill on an issue this large,” though he added both bills should go through committee. He noted sanctions supporters may be pursuing their bill despite knowing it can’t pass.
“We’ve got to remember that it’d be very difficult to override a presidential veto if this bill went down,” McCain said. “So it may be sending a message … but I don’t frankly see 67 votes to override the president’s veto of the sanctions. Even when they’re after the talks fail.”
On Wednesday, Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. and Rand Paul, R-Ky., announced a middle-ground measure: If the intelligence community were to determine that Iran has violated any existing agreement, Congress could vote to reinstate sanctions.
“It shows that Congress isn’t going to sit back and do nothing,” Boxer told Defense One. “We don’t want to interfere with the negotiations or break them up, because this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
With the sanctions legislation, Paul said, “You run the danger of breaking up the sanctions coalition and pushing Iran away from the table … Any proposal that I would try to come forward with would try not to disrupt the interim agreement that we have now and would have sanctions that would return if they were not complying with the interim agreement. It would not set new parameters.”
Boxer said she has discussed the issue with the White House and their draft should be ready in the next few weeks.
For now, lawmakers have adopted a two-track strategy for consideration, letting the Senate Banking committee consider the Kirk-Menendez proposal and the Senate Foreign Relations committee consider the Corker-Graham proposal. After postponements, the Banking committee, which has jurisdiction over sanctions, will consider its measure this week, with a hearing Tuesday and markup Thursday. The Foreign Relations committee will also hold a closed hearing Tuesday.
“I am for the strongest sanctions that we can propose and implement. It’s sanctions that have brought Iran to the table thus far, and it’s going to be sanctions that will ultimately get a good agreement if it’s possible, or not,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the Banking chairman, said. He said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also wishes to have a vote as soon as possible.
On Sunday in a joint interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes” with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, McConnell said that the sanctions legislation, “further incentivizes the Iranians to reach an agreement because they know things could get considerably worse if they do not.”
But off-camera, the leadership is taking a wait-and-see approach, eager to avoid expending precious political capital on legislation that can’t withstand Obama’s veto.
This story has been updated to reflect a schedule change for Netanyahu’s address to a joint session of Congress. He will now speak on March 3. It has also been updated to reflect a change to the next deadline set for the Iran talks, March 24, as specified in a Tuesday letter from Democratic senators to President Obama. They have agreed to not vote on the floor on Iran sanctions legislation until after that date, should a political agreement not be reached.