As Jim Lobe writes over at LobeLog, the text of the Kirk-Menendez-Schumer Iran sanctions bill is being passed around, and it makes for a grim read. Below, I discuss some takeaways from the bill – called the Iran Nuclear Weapon Free Act of 2013 (sic) – and what it could mean for the P5+1 and Iran negotiations.
(1) The bill would violate the Join Plan of Action, regardless of its claim otherwise.
Under the Joint Plan of Action agreed to in Geneva, the United States committed itself to not passing any new nuclear-related sanctions during the six-month period in which negotiators from the P5+1 and Iran would seek a final deal. To do otherwise would violate the agreement and absolve the Iranians of having to meet their own commitments under the deal.
The Iran Nuclear Weapon Free Act of 2013 claims to be consistent with this provision. But I can’t see how any good-faith interpretation of the bill could see in it anything but new nuclear-related sanctions to be hung over Iran’s negotiators like the Sword of Damocles.
We see exactly why when we turn to Section 3(A) of the Act, where the President is granted the power to suspend the imposition of sanctions for an initial six-month period (to allow for the negotiations to take place), as well as for 30-days periods after that, up to 1 year. At the end of 1 year, the President’s powers of waiver are no more. What is significant is that, for all intents and purposes, the ‘new nuclear-related sanctions’ are ‘imposed’ upon passage of the bill – as the President’s suspension powers are not mandatory, but rather subject to his discretion. He can choose to impose the sanctions at his whim, simply by lifting the suspension (if he so chooses to put it in place in the first place).
Moreover, it is wrong to think that the sanctions aren’t ‘imposed’ until the moment that somebody is subject to their punishment. Rather, people will adjust their behavior in the interim period so as to comply with the Act should a deal not be reached. And, as President Obama declared in his talk at the Saban Center, the chances are no greater than 50% that a deal will be reached. Thus, for those who want to toe the right side of the line, bets are that behavior-adjustment will start much sooner than the six-month period granted for negotiations. The longer the negotiations go on, too, the more likely it is that behavior-adjustment will ensue.
For Iran, that is unacceptable. The reasons are obvious. And regardless of what a few Senators would have us believe, the rest of the world will not take kindly to the new sanctions measures, regarding them as violating the letter and spirit of the Joint Plan of Action. They will not be wrong in that assessment, either.
(2) The bill steps ever closer to a total economic embargo of Iran.
U.S. sanctions policy has sought to cripple Iran’s energy sector, cut Iran off from the international financial system, and now looks set to extend the pain to such ‘strategic sectors’ as engineering, mining, and construction. For instance, the Iran Nuclear Weapons Free Act of 2013 ‘expands business and financial sanctions targeting Iran’s strategic economic sectors to include Iran’s engineering, manufacturing, and mining sectors.’
This brings the United States one additional step further away from the ‘targeted sanctions’ it promised us all after the terrible sanctions on Iraq. We can pretend as if Iran’s energy, financial, engineering, and manufacturing sectors are somehow related and only related to Iran’s nuclear program, but if we don’t think we’re cutting down an entire economy (and all the people that economy sustains) at the knees, then we’re just not living the real world. This bill would constitute nothing less than economic warfare and would deliberately inflict as much punishment as possible on Iran and its people to force their capitulation. It’ll be hard to feign otherwise.
(3) The bill circumscribes the President’s waiver powers.
Under existing sanctions laws, the President is granted waiver powers so as to suspend the imposition of sanctions for national security reasons. For the White House, preserving waiver power is important so long as the President is intent on conducting his own foreign policy. As negotiations take place between the P5+1 and Iran, these waiver provisions have become vital to a final deal, as Congress has proved itself terribly unlikely to lift the sanctions on Iran, regardless of the deal placed before it.
That is why hawkish members of Congress have pushed hard to circumscribe the President’s waiver powers as much as possible. If a deal is to be avoided, the President must not be allowed to lift the sanctions on Iran, even temporarily. Thus, the Iran Nuclear Weapons Free Act of 2013 provides that the President’s waiver powers are limited to the initial 360 days, after which the sanctions are mandatory and the President has no power to suspend them. You see this clearly in Section 3(D).
Not only would the bill kill the talks, which are ongoing as we speak, but it would prevent their renewal at any time in the future. So long as the President is not granted the power to relax the sanctions, it is highly unlikely that the United States could offer anything to Iran of value in negotiations, now and in the future. Withdrawing from the President his traditional waiver powers destroys the chance of rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran.
(4) The bill makes a final deal impossible.
As news stories had promised, the Iran Nuclear Weapons Free Act of 2013 prescribes parameters within which the White House should negotiate (with a threatened Joint Resolution of Congressional Disapproval to prod President Obama should he fail to abide). Among these parameters are included such items as:
- The dismantling of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and facilities…
- Bringing Iran into compliance with all United Nations Security Council resolutions related to Iran’s nuclear program…
In other words, President Obama must ensure that a final deal with Iran includes the dismantling of all enrichment facilities and capabilities Iran has at present. As Iran has made clear time and again, that is a total non-starter. Iran insists on its nuclear rights for which it is party to the NPT, including the right to enrichment. While being vague on whether Iran, in fact, had enrichment rights under the NPT or elsewhere, the Joint Plan of Action certainly contemplated a ‘mutually-defined enrichment program’ upon conclusion of the talks. Clearly, the Iran Nuclear Weapons Free Act of 2013 would upset that end-goal, as the White House would be forced to abscond on its promises under the JPA.
Where would that leave us? Without a final deal for sure. I can’t tell if Senators Menendez, Kirk, and Schumer really think Iran will capitulate to U.S. demands at some point, or whether their bill is just a prelude to a war with Iran, but that is certainly where we are headed it if this moves forward in the Senate. For the first time in 34 years, the U.S. and Iran are talking, and some in Washington just are very, very unhappy about that fact. So unhappy as to wish a war would burst the bubble.
In fact, I propose that we call this bill what it really is – not the Iran Nuclear Weapons Free Act of 2013, but the Iran Nuclear Weapons Guarantee Act of 2014. Because what a few Senators are really telling Iran is this: you can’t deal with us, and if you can’t deal with us, you have one of two options – capitulate or go head-long into the direction of a bomb. And I will not be one to blame Iran for choosing the latter; I’ve seen an entire decade of U.S. policies designed to make sure it does exactly such.