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With Iran talks extended, some in Congress are rushing to step in

Sen. Lindsey Graham, shown in Washington on July 30, 2014, is backing an initiative that would require congressional approval of any nuclear deal signed with Iran. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Sen. Lindsey Graham, shown in Washington on July 30, 2014, is backing an initiative that would require congressional approval of any nuclear deal signed with Iran. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – Two factors make congressional intervention on Iran almost inevitable: The inability of nuclear negotiators to reach a deal by the deadline and the Republican sweep of midterm elections on Nov. 4.

The talks, centered on the status of Iran’s nuclear program, were extended from Monday’s deadline to June 30.
Meanwhile, the pro-Israel community, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is seeking support for proposed legislation that would insert Congress into the process.

“It is now essential that Congress take up new bipartisan sanctions legislation to let Tehran know that it will face much more severe pressure if it does not clearly abandon its nuclear weapons program,” AIPAC said in a statement after it was announced Monday that the major powers and Iran had extended the deadline.

Without substantive Democratic support, no bill is likely to reach a veto-busting majority of 67 in the Senate. Republicans, who have taken a harder line on Iran’s nuclear program, will control no more than 54 seats in the next Congress.

Lawmakers in Congress and mainstream pro-Israel groups blamed Iran for dragging out the process.

“Seven months of more talks tells me that the negotiators aren’t close to agreement,” said Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee. “Unfortunately, time is on Tehran’s side as it continues its research and development of centrifuges.”

Republicans in the incoming Senate majority have already laid out two legislative initiatives: One, backed by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), would require congressional approval for any deal. Another would carry over this year’s failed attempt by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) to enhance existing sanctions on Iran.

U.S. sanctions currently in place target Iran’s energy and banking sectors, as well as any trade that might benefit its nuclear enterprise. Some sanctions have been rolled back, allowing Iran to retrieve about $5 billion of the $100 billion per year that the penalties cost its economy, according to U.S. estimates. The sanctions in a bill proposed earlier this year would have expanded targets to include anything in Iran’s “strategic sector,” a term that would have allowed much broader punishment and tightened congressional oversight.

Graham, announcing his initiative earlier this month at a conference of the Israeli American Council, was unable to name a Democrat supporting the proposed bill.

The other bill is a likelier magnet for Democratic support in part because Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, was a lead sponsor of the version that failed to advance this session. The measure was held up at the behest of the Obama administration and through parliamentary maneuvers by the outgoing majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). The White House argued that any new sanctions bill would drive away the Iranians from the talks.
Kirk said he plans to reintroduce a sanctions bill.

“Now more than ever, it’s critical that Congress enacts sanctions that give Iran’s mullahs no choice but to dismantle their illicit nuclear program and allow the International Atomic Energy Agency full and unfettered access to assure the international community’s security,” he said.

Menendez, however, was more cautious in his statement, not directly mentioning sanctions as a weapon going forward.
“I intend to work with my Senate colleagues in a bipartisan manner in the coming weeks to ensure that Iran comprehends that we will not ever permit it to become a threshold nuclear state,” he said.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was even more restrained.
“It’s premature to comment on an extension of the negotiations with Iran, as the details have not yet been announced,” Engel, one of the most ardent supporters of Iran sanctions in the past, said in a brief statement.

Congressional insiders said one key to garnering Democratic support for a renewed and enhanced sanctions bill is whether it includes the triggers that the Menendez-Kirk bill had in its last iteration: Sanctions would not kick in until Iran erred, either by violating the terms of the agreement governing the talks with major powers or by walking away.
Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) has already said triggers should be included, but Republicans may feel that they have the upper hand and press for immediate enhanced sanctions.

Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corp., a think tank that consults frequently with the Pentagon, said that any new sanctions could kill talks, as they would give Iran a way out while blaming U.S. intransigence.

“It undermines U.S. diplomacy to have sanctions before the deadline,” Nader said Tuesday in an interview.

She said new sanctions could lose the United States the backing of the international community, which President Obama was careful to garner before pushing broad sanctions through the United Nations in 2010.

“If Iran wins the battle of perception, that would make it harder for the U.S. to win concessions from Iran,” Nader said.
Ed Levine, a former top Senate foreign affairs staffer and now a member of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation’s advisory board, suggested that it was unlikely that Congress would pass new sanctions, if only because of its historical reluctance – even in an adversarial posture toward the White House – to pass legislation that “kills” diplomatic initiatives as opposed to offering an alternative.

“Most of the proposals [Congress has] made over the last year or so have died in subcommittee,” Levine said at an event Tuesday organized by the Brookings Institution. “You want a piece of legislation that will help the negotiations rather than antagonizing our allies,” although he said that also was unlikely given the “maximalist” conditions some in Congress have embraced.

Dennis Ross, a former top Iran adviser to Obama, said the mere threat of additional sanctions may be useful as leverage as the talks go forward.

“The administration could go to the Congress and suggest, ‘Give us a chance to negotiate this; imposing new sanctions would make it problematic,’ ” Ross, now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in a conference call convened Tuesday by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. ” ‘How about making it clear new sanctions will be forthcoming if there isn’t an agreement?’ ”