GOP Threatens to Boost Sanctions

Senator Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois, repeated last week a widely held prediction:  The Senate, now controlled by his party, will vote new sanctions against Iran as one of its first items of business.  The most likely vehicle will be the bill he and Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced in late 2013 (S. 1881 or the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act).  The bill bristles with tough-sounding provisions, faces a White House veto, and could dominate debate over Iran for the next month.  But the interesting question is:  What would it really accomplish?

The bill operates in stages.  First, it imposes sanctions.  These include measures requiring countries to further reduce Iranian oil imports to “de minimis” levels within one year and the expansion of financial sanctions to “strategic sectors” in Iran (construction, mining, and engineering), as well as to entities operating in special economic zones and free trade zones controlled by Iran.  The bill then allows the President to suspend these sanctions.  But only if he certifies that certain conditions exist.  One condition is that the Iranians continue to negotiate toward a final deal.  Another is that they don’t violate the interim accord that now exists.  These are the main requirements cited in support of the bill.  The curious thing is that Iran seems unlikely to run afoul of either.  It is true that Iran has shown little stomach for getting rid of its centrifuges or dismantling its nuclear infrastructure, but it has shown even less for abandoning the talks.  And Iran has been careful not to breach the letter of the interim accord.  The bill also bars acts of terrorism, and testing a missile with a range above 500 km, but Iran could satisfy those requirements too if it wanted to keep the talks going, which it apparently does.  So, once the bill is whittled down enough to survive a veto, and contains even fewer hurdles than it does now, what can it hope to achieve as long as negotiations continue?

The administration has warned that any bill, even one having no effect as long as Iran is “proactively and in good faith engaged in negotiations,” would be a provocation.  It would risk having Iran quit the talks in protest.  U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power warned on January 12 that with more sanctions, “Iran would be able to blame the U.S. for sabotaging the negotiations” and countries that have heretofore supported U.S. sanctions would balk at strengthening them.  And if Iran quit the talks, the bill itself would have caused a breach of one of its own requirements – that Iran keep talking.  In effect, the bill would have torpedoed the talks and replaced them with sanctions.  Perhaps its sponsors do not believe Iran actually would walk out.  Or perhaps they are willing to accept such an outcome because they view Iran’s participation in the talks as disingenuous, and stronger sanctions – or their looming prospect – as the only way to cut off Iran’s path to nuclear weaponry.  More will come to light in the coming weeks, when the Senate debate begins.

More may also come to light this week as talks resume in Geneva – about two months ahead of the preliminary March deadline set by the United States.  Secretary of State John Kerry has said he hopes Iran and the P5+1 can reach a “political agreement” on the “major elements” of a final deal by then.  If they do, the Senate bill would allow the President to suspend the sanctions if  the deal meets Congress’ additional requirements, including the dismantlement of Iran’s “illicit” infrastructure, compliance with U.N. resolutions, the resolution of questions about possible military dimensions to its nuclear program, and enhanced monitoring by international inspectors.