U.S. Senate Sanctions Bill Is All About Torpedoing a Nuclear Deal With Iran

How can a bill purportedly aimed at promoting a diplomatic deal with Iran simultaneously pledge unconditional U.S. support for an Israeli attack?

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

Earlier this week, a senior Obama administration official told me he thinks many of the senators cosponsoring the new Iran sanctions bill don’t know what’s in their own legislation. He noted that when the administration sends sub-cabinet level officials to brief members and their staffs on the details of nuclear negotiations, few show up. An expert who regularly discusses Iran policy on Capitol Hill concurs, calling many senators “shockingly uninformed.”

Maybe that’s too harsh. Then again, look at what the bill’s backers say. In unveiling the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, New Jersey’s Robert Menendez declared that the bill would help in “achieving a meaningful diplomatic resolution.”

That’s not just wrong. It’s absurd. For starters, the interim nuclear deal agreed to by Iran and the Western powers last November states explicitly 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.” Menendez and company say their bill doesn’t “impose” new sanctions, since those sanctions could be suspended for up to a year to allow nuclear negotiations to proceed, and yet again once a final deal is reached.

But in determining the impact of new sanctions on the chances of a nuclear deal, it’s not Menendez’s interpretation that counts. It’s Iran’s. And last December, when the journalist Robin Wright asked Iranian foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif how his government would respond if “Congress imposes new sanctions, even if they don’t go into effect for six months?” His reply was blunt. “The entire deal is dead.”

The more you look at the bill’s provisions, the clearer it becomes that Zarif is right. An analysis of the legislation by longtime senate foreign relations committee staffer Edward Levine notes that to suspend the new sanctions indefinitely, President Obama must certify that “Iran will…dismantle its illicit nuclear infrastructure.” That’s pretty vague. But AIPAC’s summary of the bill helpfully explains that “Iran’s illicit nuclear infrastructure” includes “enrichment and reprocessing capabilities.”

Which would be fine, except that the Obama administration has already conceded that it can accept limited Iranian uranium enrichment so long as it’s not near weapons-grade and is closely monitored by inspectors. To suspend the sanctions, in other words, a final nuclear deal would have to include provisions that the governments of both Iran and the United States have already insisted it will not include.

It gets worse. The sanctions bill requires Obama to certify that “Iran has not conducted any tests for ballistic missiles with a range exceeding 500 kilometers.” But, Levine notes, the legislation doesn’t say when Iran must not have conducted those tests, meaning that “Iran’s past missile tests beyond 500 km might make it impossible for the President to ever make this certification.” [my emphasis] The bill also requires Obama to certify that “Iran has not directly, or through a proxy, supported, financed, planned, or otherwise carried out an act of terrorism against the United States or United States persons or property anywhere in the world.” But yet again, there’s no time frame so (Levine again) “Iran’s past support of terrorism might make it impossible for the President to ever make this certification.”

Even if a reasonable time frame were specified, there’s a bigger problem. By insisting that Obama certify an end to Iranian missile tests and support for terrorism, Menendez and company are insisting that a final deal cover subjects it was never meant to cover. The interim agreement makes clear that the sole goal of current negotiations is to “ensure [that] Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful.”

Ending Tehran’s missile tests and aid to Hezbollah would be lovely. So would ending its brutal crackdowns on domestic dissent. But if the U.S. makes non-nuclear demands, so will Iran. In the past, for instance, its leaders have demanded compensation for Western sanctions and an apology for past American “crimes” against their country. Conditioning a nuclear agreement on non-nuclear subjects, in other words, will likely torpedo the chances of any deal at all.

Which is precisely the point. Whether its supporters realize it or not, the sanctions bill is all about torpedoing a nuclear deal. “If the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran's nuclear weapon program,” it states, “the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide…diplomatic, military, and economic support.” Why would a bill ostensibly designed to promote a diplomatic agreement simultaneously pledge American support for an Israeli attack? (The bill doesn’t even condition U.S. support for an Israeli strike on diplomatic efforts having failed). And why should a country as war-weary as the United States offer, ex-ante, to join a third Middle Eastern war?

There’s little reason to believe that many of the 59 senators now backing the Iran sanctions bill have good answers to those questions. It’s up to the American media to ask them now, and thus ensure that, more than a decade after the invasion of Iraq, it is not complicit in another dishonest march to war.

Snow-capped mountains and Iran's heavy water nuclear facility near the city of Arak.Credit: Arak nuclear plant, Iran (AP)
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert MenendezCredit: AP

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