On March 24, “The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015” will be presented to the Senate. Sponsored by Mark Kirk, a junior Republican senator from Illinois and Robert Menendez, a senior Democrat senator from New Jersey, the bill proposes to expand sanctions against Iran specifically against the sale of Iranian oil and the engineering, construction, and automobile sectors of Iran, among others. But why is Congress considering more sanctions in the midst of nuclear negotiations with Iran? We’ve been here before.
On March 3, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will address a joint session of Congress advocating for these new and increased sanctions.
The gap between the speech and the bill allows about two weeks for a diplomatic solution between Iran and the U.S. before the bill drops into the Senate. However, President Obama has already vowed to veto the bill should it pass through Congress and Congress’s ability to override the veto — needing 67% of the vote to pass — is uncertain.
Meanwhile, another vote will be taking place in Israel on March 17 to elect the next Knesset. Also uncertain is the future of Prime Minister Netanyahu as head of the Israeli government as his Likud Party faces hard opposition from the Zionist Camp, a coalition between the Isaac Herzog’s Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s Zatnuah party.
Netanyahu’s address at Congress is sparking controversy no longer over the impertinence of the talk, but rather over its political value. Israeli leaders fear that the visit will undermine the alliance between the US and Israel and hurt the chances of the bill to pass into law. In Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, the headline read, “You’re Right, But Don’t Go.”
Support for the bill is wavering in America. If Obama vetoes the bill — and he has declared that he will — then the Senate needs 67 senators to override the veto. Currently, between 62 to 65 are for the bill; 52 Republicans, 13 Democrats. They are already 2 votes shy of passing the bill.
Netanyahu’s presence in Congress has angered many Democrats who before had not sided with Obama. Now, 10 Senate Democrats are walking away from the bill and dozens of House Democrats will pass on attending Netanyahu’s speech. His speech and ignoring White House protocol has angered Obama and alienated countries which supported Israel. The bill will likely pass through Congress the first time, but it is unlikely to survive Obama’s veto.
The “Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015” says its purpose is: “To expand sanctions imposed with respect to Iran and to impose additional sanctions with respect to Iran, and for other purposes.” While as vague as this summary may seem, it is not actually burying anything ugly and passing it into law by slipping it into a bill. The bill proposes to expand sanctions on engineering, construction, and automotive sectors of the Iranian economy; that any country currently buying crude, fuel, unfinished, or any oil of the sort from Iran must lower the levels purchased to an agreed-upon minimum; and bars entry to the U.S. anyone who evades these sanctions on behalf of Iran or any Iranian official involved with terrorism. The bill also makes provisions for the waiver of these sanctions depending on diplomatic negotiations.
But this bill has existed before. In its 2013 incarnation, it was introduced to the Senate by Democrat Robert Menendez, a senior Senator from New Jersey. Senator Menendez also has a hand in the 2015 bill so much so that it is short-named the “Menendez-Kirk” bill. Similarly, the 2013 bill proposed to increase sanctions following any violation by Iran regarding its nuclear program; gave terms of waiver of the sanctions; and continued the offensive against terrorism.
However, the bill also slipped in one major provision buried in Section 2:
if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapon program, the United States Government 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
What is incredible about this provision that this is the only section that refers to this support of a war that would allow the deployment of U.S. forces. In the text of the bill, the word ‘Israel’ is found only 4 times; 3 of those times are in the text above. How can a major issue like declaring military and economic support of war be sidelined to a brief paragraph in the midst of a bill? The 2013 bill also had the same summary, that it proposed “to expand sanctions imposed with respect to Iran and to impose additional sanctions with respect to Iran, and for other purposes.” Apparently fighting a war can now be labeled as “other purposes.”
The 2013 Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act died in Congress.
But even this 2013 bill was a reincarnation of a bill proposed by Robert Menendez while he was a U.S. Representative in 1998. The “Iran Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Act of 1998” was an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1969 under which USAID was created. This 1998 bill states that the US should withhold “U.S. voluntary contributions from programs and projects of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Iran unless the Secretary of State makes a determination … that such programs and projects are consistent with U.S. nuclear nonproliferation and safety goals and will not provide Iran with training or expertise relevant to nuclear programs’ development.” This bill would allow nuclear development as long as it had peaceful purposes. In comparison to today’s bill, this amendment was relaxed and open; it allowed Iran room to research nuclear energy but held Iran to its commitment of non-proliferation. The bill never made it out of Congress, however.
So now in 2015, the bill returns again to Congress. The non-government site GovTrack.us gives the bill a 1% chance of being enacted into law. This low percentage is no doubt affected by Netanyahu’s speech which alienated many Democrats needed to override Obama’s veto.
But all of these bills should raise the question: why are we imposing these sanctions? (A question for another article might be what is Senator Menendez’s vendetta against Iran.)
The quick, easy answer would be that Iran is antagonistic towards America, is developing nuclear weapons, and evading international talks for nonproliferation. But scouring through newspapers and articles and timelines of this relationship, you would be hard pressed to find an answer of why today in 2013 or 2015 — not 1979 — we are pushing for more sanctions.
In September of 2012, Netanyahu made his “Red Line” speech to the UN warning against signing a treaty with Iran that would halt nuclear development, but would leave Iran with precarious amounts of enriched uranium. Talks with Iran had failed back in May of 2012 in Baghdad when Western powers refused to compromise on economic sanctions.
The US enforced more sanctions in February 2013 — unaffiliated with Menendez’s 2013 bill — following Iran’s announcement that it would “deploy a new generation of centrifuges, four to six times as powerful as the current generation.”
By April of 2013, Israel was ready to strike Iranian nuclear facilities by itself. Sanctions were ramped up in May and June of 2013.
Then, on June 15, 2013, President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate Western-educated cleric, made headlines by first speaking to the UN General Assembly and then speaking by telephone with President Obama — the first contact between the countries in more than 30 years. He pledged to find a nuclear accord in return for an end of sanctions. Over the next few months, some of the most positive and optimistic conversation has occurred between the U.S. and Iran, easing tensions and sparking new opportunities.
So why would a bill enter Congress in December of 2013 calling for more sanctions and for the support of Israel should they war against Iran? Let’s return to this question later.
In November of 2013, Iran and key Western powers had agreed to the “Joint Plan of Action” which stipulates that Iran will decrease its amount of 20% enriched uranium, would neither build new facilities nor expand old ones, and would allow monitoring of its nuclear facilities; in turn, sanctions on its key economic sectors including its export of oil would be lifted and the EU, the UN, and the US would refrain from new sanctions related to nuclear development.
In 2014, Iran began to comply with the terms of the Joint Plan of Action and in return received sanction relief. Negotiations have been extended several times in hopes to reach a long-term agreement and so far there has been no reason to doubt Iran’s sincerity.
Despite that, the 2015 sanctions bill still exists and now the question is why. Why, after all the progress, developments, and optimism for a restored and healthier relationship with Iran, would Congress seek to ruin that?
An article from Al Jazeera America about the bill suggests that sanctions are in place to gain leverage over Iran to force them to the negotiating table. Increasing sanctions would increase Western leverage. However Iran is already at the negotiating table, they are already in talks, and already have begun complying with nuclear agreements. Adding further sanctions would only aggravate the new relationship between Iran and the US and lead to deep mistrust toward the U.S.
The article adds, that “there were no nuclear-related sanctions in force when the same Iranian negotiators first came to the table from 2003 to 2005 and offered the West more attractive terms back then than they are doing now under sanctions pressure.” U.S. sanctions have failed to have real impact on negotiations. On the contrary, increased sanctions are often followed by increased nuclear production. While American backers say sanctions increase U.S. leverage, many in Iran say nuclear development increases Iranian leverage in the negotiations. We are in a cycle of failed negotiations which lead to increased sanctions which lead to increased nuclear development and then more sanctions. It’s a lose-lose scenario.
Many officials from Iran are afraid that increasing sanctions will cause Iran to end the Joint Action Plan, withdrawing from the current accord to scale back nuclear development in return for sanctions relief. Both of these outcomes are counterproductive to what each country wants: the U.S. wants Iran’s nuclear capabilities to decrease and security in the region; Iran wants an end to sanctions which have crippled their economy, tumbled the rial, and smothered their ability to export oil. It would be a win-win for both countries if a formal agreement was met and each side accomplished what it said it would do.
So why do we insist on more sanctions?
Perhaps it is the influence of Israel who is vehemently opposed to any nuclear deal with Iran and continues to consider Iran as its arch-nemesis which is driving the need for sanctions; perhaps it is a way for the Republican Congress to snub Obama by denying him a historical accord; perhaps it is the desire to not be seen compromising with Iran who many still see as a backwards, extremist country still in line with its policy of 1979.
Perhaps there is a good reason for the sanctions, but it has been startlingly absent from newspapers and discussions and we should ask why. But we should not be so stuck in the rut of piling on sanctions that we refuse to compromise and miss the opportunity of peace.
It’s time like these when I think back to the great Jason Bourne line, “Do you even know why you’re supposed to kill me?” I’d like to propose a similar one to Congress: Do you even know what these sanctions are for?