Senate Still Deciding: Sanctions or Diplomacy

By Amanda Waldron and Angela Canterbury

Just one week after Senator Robert Menendez accused President Obama of getting his talking points from Tehran, the New Jersey Democrat and co-sponsor of Senator Kirk’s (R-Ill.) “Nuclear Weapons-Free Iran Act of 2015,” appears to be backing down. For the time being, that is.

In a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee Hearing on January 27, Senator Menendez revealed he had sent a letter to the President in which he and the other small group of Democratic supporters of the Kirk-Menendez bill would delay voting on this legislation on the Senate floor until after March 24, the notional goal (but not an official deadline) by which the U.S. and its international partners promised to have a political framework for a final nuclear agreement with Iran. However, the final agreement deadline is not until July.

Among other dangerous provisions, the Kirk-Menendez bill would make impossible demands on negotiations so that no deal would be a good deal. Thus, news that these lawmakers may postpone seeking a floor vote on this legislation is a victory for diplomacy and for President Obama, who’d been urging Congress to allow the talks to play out.

Events from the past few weeks have caused Democratic sanctions proponents to think twice before moving forward with legislation that might undermine the administration, the U.S.’s negotiating partners, and others in the Democratic Party who wish to support the talks.

1) State of the Union: President Obama vowed in his State of the Union Address to veto any sanctions legislation that could threaten this fragile diplomatic process to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. The president’s threat, combined with reluctance from several fence-sitting Democrats, seems to have dissuaded sanctions proponents from acting too soon. As Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said in Tuesday’s banking committee hearing, “The last thing we need to do is pass a bill out of the U.S. Senate that is not veto proof.”

2) European Allies Weigh In: Just days before the President’s address, British Prime Minister David Cameron made a timely visit to the Oval Office where he echoed the President’s call to Congress: hold off on sanctions at this time. Then, shortly after the State of the Union, four European foreign ministers published an opinion piece in the Washington Post that made a similar appeal to the U.S. Congress to “Give Diplomacy a Chance.” This series of warnings from the U.S.’s negotiating partners worked to support the position that sanctions legislation would not strengthen their hand, but rather, as Prime Minister Cameron said, more sanctions “would fracture the international unity which has been so valuable in presenting a united front to Iran.”

In her questioning to Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken during Tuesday’s hearing, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) asked if sanctions legislation would make it easier or harder to maintain this international coalition. When Blinken predictably answered “harder,” Senator Warren asserted she “just can’t support” legislation that threatens to unravel this international coalition.

3) Alternatives: On top of this pressure from the Obama administration and from negotiating partners, Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) introduced a new resolution on Monday that offers a helpful alternative to the Kirk-Menendez bill. Instead of derailing the talks, the Feinstein-Murphy resolution calls for sanctions only in the event that either talks fail or Iran cheats, but without prejudging the outcome with pre-emptive legislation. Symbolically, the resolution also extends its support to the president and U.S. negotiating partners in their effort to reach a verifiable agreement. More Democrats now support this resolution than those supporting the Kirk-Menendez bill.

To boot, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) recently announced plans to introduce another alternative to avoid derailing the talks, which would allow quick votes by Congress to reinstate sanctions if necessary following the deadline.

4) The Bibi Blunder: Lastly, to really stir the pot, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) extended a controversial invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who is scheduled to address Congress on March 17—just a week before the notional March 24 “deadline.” Netanyahu has long hinged the existence of Israel upon stopping Iran from building a nuclear weapon, but he refuses to believe that any negotiated settlement will be able to quell the Iranian nuclear threat. Thus, it’s presumed Netanyahu’s address to Congress will highlight Bibi’s perceived dangers of a deal, and the need for tougher sanctions.

But Bibi’s actions have not only further soured his relationship with President Obama (who doesn’t plan to meet with the Prime Minister during his visit), but has also alienated many congressional Democrats who view his run-around with Speaker Boehner as a betrayal of the President.

Altogether, the President’s veto threat, the pressure by European allies, the introduction of alternative legislation, and the Bibi blunder, have combined to dissuade the vast majority of Senate Democrats from pushing for a vote on new sanctions at this time.

This backing-off is encouraging, but also likely temporary.

Should the negotiators fail to produce evidence of a political agreement in March, there’s little doubt that Senators Menendez, Kirk, and hawks from both sides of the aisle will be back with unreasonable demands. Also, the Senate Banking Committee is still planning to markup the Kirk-Menendez bill on Thursday, so that it will be poised for a floor vote in March. And, while Netanyahu’s visit has left a bad taste in the mouths of Democrats, his support for increased sanctions will carry weight in a Republican-majority Congress.

However, legislation that might threaten the talks today, will also surely threaten the talks in March. As the French Ambassador to the United States Gérard Araud Tweeted yesterday, “The date of the 24th of March, agreed with Iran, is notional for a framework agreement. It is a goal. Only one firm dateline: June 30th.” Not only is it not up to Congress to set deadlines for these negotiations, but there’s no reason to revisit this harmful legislation while the talks are ongoing.

Besides, President Obama has said on numerous occasions that he would be the first to enact more sanctions against Iran if they fail to reach a good deal by the true deadline, June 30th. As the New Jersey Star Ledger printed on Wednesday (in Menendez’s home state), “Better to leave this sensitive dance to Obama than to meddle in ways that could be counterproductive… Menendez says he will wait until March, but our hope is that he abandons this altogether.”

It’s our hope, too.


Angela Canterbury is the Executive Director and Amanda Waldron is the Communications Associate at the Council for a Livable World