Three top senators, including two Democrats, have begun circulating a draft of a new Iran sanctions bill that critics say could violate the terms of an agreement struck between Iran and the United States in Geneva last month. The bill, set for introduction by the Democratic chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, along with top sanctions hawks Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), defies the Obama administration's repeated requests for Congress to hold off on any new legislation that could imperil last month's interim nuclear pact with Iran while talks continue toward a comprehensive final deal.
A copy of the bill, dubbed the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013*, was obtained by Foreign Policy. The new sanctions are unlikely to come to a vote in the Senate this week in the final days of the 2013 session.* Instead, the Senate would likely consider the measure after it returns on Jan. 6.
The legislation would broaden the scope of the sanctions already imposed against Iran, expanding the restrictions on Iran's energy sector to include all aspects of its petroleum trade and putting in place measures targeting Iran's shipping and mining sectors. The bill allows Obama to waive the new sanctions during the current talks by certifying every 30 days that Iran is complying with the Geneva deal and negotiating in good faith on a final agreement, as well as meeting other conditions such as not sponsoring or carrying out acts of terrorism against U.S. targets.
In accordance with goals laid out frequently by hard-liners in Congress and the influential lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the bill sets tough conditions for a final deal, should one be reached with Iranian negotiators. Among those conditions is a provision that only allows Obama to waive new sanctions, even after a final deal has been struck, if that deal bars Iran from enriching any new uranium whatsoever. The bill states Obama may not waive sanctions unless the United States and its allies "reached a final and verifiable agreement or arrangement with Iran that will ... dismantle Iran's illicit nuclear infrastructure, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and facilities." (Congress could also block Obama's waivers by passing a "joint resolution of disapproval" against a final deal.)
The bill includes a non-binding provision that states that if Israel takes "military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran's nuclear weapons program," the U.S. "should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence." That language mirrors that introduced in February by another Iran hawk, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). With the support of AIPAC, the Graham resolution, a non-binding bill, was passed by the Senate in April.*
Critics of imposing new sanctions fear that the bill will violate either the spirit or the letter of the Joint Plan of Action signed in Geneva. The interim deal allows some flexibility, mandating that "the U.S. administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions." Administration officials have mounted a so-far successful effort to stall new sanctions in the Senate. (The House overwhelmingly passed new sanctions in the summer.) Previous rumors of a bill in the Senate were said to contain a six-month delay that would prevent the legislation from taking effect while talks continued, but this iteration of the legislation doesn't contain that kind of fail-safe. Asked this month by Time what would happen if a bill, even with a delay, passed Congress, Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said, "The entire deal is dead."
"The law as written comes close to violating the letter [of the Geneva agreement] since the sanctions go into effect immediately unless the administration immediately waives them," said Colin Kahl, who stepped down in 2011* as the Pentagon's top Mideast policy official. "There is no question the legislation violates the spirit of the Geneva agreement and it would undoubtedly be seen by the Iranians that way, giving ammunition to hard-liners and other spoilers looking to derail further progress."
Though a fact-sheet circulating with the new bill says it "does not violate the Joint Plan of Action," critics allege it would mark a defeat for the administration and the broader push for a diplomatic solution to the Iran crisis.
"It would kill the talks, invalidate the interim deal to freeze Iran's nuclear program, and pledge U.S. military and economic support for an Israel-led war on Iran," said Jamal Abdi, the policy director for the Washington-based National Iranian American Council, a group that supports diplomatic efforts to head off the Iranian nuclear crisis. "There is no better way to cut Iranian moderates down, empower hardliners who want to kill the talks, and ensure that this standoff ends with war instead of a deal."
The bill would in effect set up a direct confrontation with the White House, which is negotiating a final deal with Tehran that would allow for continued Iranian enrichment capabilities. According to the agreement, the comprehensive deal would "involve a mutually defined enrichment program" with strict curbs. In a forum this month at the Brookings Institution, Obama dismissed the possibility that Tehran would agree to a deal that eliminated Iran's entire nuclear program or its domestic enrichment capabilities.
"If we could create an option in which Iran eliminated every single nut and bolt of their nuclear program, and foreswore the possibility of ever having a nuclear program, and, for that matter, got rid of all its military capabilities, I would take it," Obama said. "That particular option is not available." Asked again about not allowing any Iranian enrichment, Obama quipped, to laughter from the audience, "One can envision an ideal world in which Iran said, 'We'll destroy every element and facility and you name it, it's all gone.' I can envision a world in which Congress passed every one of my bills that I put forward. I mean, there are a lot of things that I can envision that would be wonderful."
Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the RAND Corporation, agreed dismantling Iran's entire nuclear program would be "pretty unrealistic." He added such an aim would be moving "backward": "The Geneva agreement basically states that if Iran is more transparent regarding its nuclear program and intentions, then it can be met with sanctions relief. That's the goal: transparency."
Nader said that diplomacy required flexibility from both sides, something the legislation doesn't seem to contain. "When you have these kinds of bills, it shows that there are those in the U.S. who don't want to be flexible," he said.
*Correction: An earlier version of this story contained several factual errors. It misstated the name of legislation that could introduce additional sanctions against Iran. That draft bill is the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013, not the Iran Nuclear Weapon Free Act of 2013. Additionally, the bill does not authorize military force against Iran and mirrors non-binding legislation approved by the Senate earlier this year. The bill would not attach any amendments to a pending Pentagon budget bill. Finally, Colin Kahl left the Pentagon in December of 2011, not last year.
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