President Barack Obama's administration is working on the details of how it will implement crippling new sanctions against Iran, and the two senators who wrote the legislation warned the White House today not to water down the measures.
"We understand that the administration is drafting rules to guide the implementation of the law and we hereby seek to convey the legislative intent underlying certain terms and phrases in the amendment and to ensure that the positive developments that have occurred as a result of the amendment are buttressed by the administrative rules," wrote Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) in a letter today to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who traveled personally to Japan and China this month to discuss the issue.
The State Department has sent teams to several countries urging them to comply with the new measures imposed by the Menendez-Kirk amendment, but the administration's recent enthusiasm for the sanctions is at odds with their attempts to water down the sanctions language while it was going through Congress. The law would punish any country or bank that does business with the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), or with Iran's state-controlled oil sector.
That's why Kirk and Menendez, along with their allies, are now worried that the Obama administration will try to implement the rules in such a way that will allow some countries that refuse to stop doing business with Iran to wiggle off the hook, by delaying implementation for months or claiming that other countries' adherence is more robust than it really is.
Obama, for his part, has hailed his administration's success in establishing a broad-based coalition aimed at isolating Iran.
"When I came into office, what we had was a situation in which the world was divided, Iran was unified, it was on the move in the region. And because of effective diplomacy, unprecedented pressure with respect to sanctions, our ability to get countries like Russia and China -- that had previously balked at any serious pressure on Iran -- to work with us, Iran now faces a unified world community, Iran is isolated, its standing in the region is diminished. It is feeling enormous economic pressure," the president told Time in an interview released today.
The Menendez-Kirk letter list several concerns about the forthcoming rules, which could be unveiled as early as next week. Their two main worries are that the administration will allow countries to avoid being penalized by saying they have achieved "significant reductions" in their dealing with Iran, and that Obama will postpone implementation of the sanctions on national security grounds.
The implementation rules will define exactly what the term "significant reductions" means. Menendez and Kirk want the administration to use the same definition as was used for the last round of Iran sanctions, as dictated by the Comprehensive Iran Sanction, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), to avoid any confusion.
"To ascribe more variable terminology to the definition of ‘significantly reduced' would diminish the ability of countries to understand and comply with the amendment," the senators wrote. "An unevenly applied interpretation would also call into question the seriousness of the sanctions policy and send mixed signals to both Iran and our allies."
The senators' other main concern is that Obama will avail himself of the "national security waiver" found in the law to postpone implementing the new sanctions altogether for another 120 days. If he doesn't invoke this waiver, sanctions against countries that do business with the CBI could take hold Feb. 29. If Obama uses the waiver, he won't have to sanction any countries until late June, which tracks with the timeline the law specifies for the imposition of the oil-related sanctions.
The senators also don't think Obama should be able to waive all the sanctions with one stroke of the pen. They want him to have to waive sanctions for each country on a case-by-case basis. That's one of the things the forthcoming rules will address.
"We would welcome an opportunity to discuss these points with you prior to the publication of the final rule for the Menendez-Kirk amendment," the senators wrote -- a nice way to complain to the administration that they are not being properly consulted.
A senior Senate aide who works on the issue was more direct with The Cable.
"There's been little to no consultation or communication on this rule," the aide said. "There is growing concern that the administration may be moving toward a broad and non-specific definition for ‘significant reduction,' and the intention of the authors is that every bank that is in violation of the law would need its own national security waiver in order for the president to exempt them."
The actual rule writing is done at Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), run by Adam Szubin.
"The administration is hard at work drafting the regulations implementing the legislation. We are already using this law, in concert with our other efforts, to reduce Iran's access to oil revenue, both by working with our partners to significantly reduce their imports of Iranian crude and by impeding the CBI's ability to receive payment for whatever oil Iran is able to sell," a Treasury Department spokesman told The Cable. "We will continue our intensive engagement to ensure that the maximum amount of pressure is exerted by the international community against Iran's illicit nuclear program."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.