Defying the Obama administration’s push for a diplomatic way to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program, 26 U.S. senators introduced legislation calling for increased sanctions if Iran violates an international six-month agreement that has yet to go into effect.
The legislation introduced last week requires further reductions in purchases of Iranian petroleum and applies additional penalties to elements of the Iran economy — including the engineering, mining and construction sectors. At the same time, it gives the Obama administration flexibility and up to one year from the conclusion of an agreement to pursue a diplomatic track that would end Iran’s nuclear weapons program, according to Sens. Robert Menendez (R-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who introduced the legislation.
The legislation is supported by 13 Democratic and 13 Republican senators and also calls for the United States to support Israel if it attacks the Iranian nuclear program. Locally, Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) are co-sponsors.
Recent polls differ on what Americans believe is the best way to stop Iran from going nuclear. One poll by Al-Masadar.net and TheTower.org found that 77 percent support continued negotiations while imposing sanctions. In a poll by Americans United for Change and Hart Research, 67 percent say they want Congress to give the new agreement a chance before renewing sanctions.
Under the Joint Plan of Action, which was negotiated in Geneva in November, there is to be a short-term freeze on portions of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for decreased economic sanctions. Meanwhile a long-term agreement would be worked out. However, an official start date for that short-term agreement has yet to be worked out, and many believe that Iran is continuing to work on its nuclear weapons program.
However, one day after the senators introduced their legislation, titled Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013, Iran now says it will return to the negotiations.
Cardin, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said of the senate’s proposal, “We want to give diplomacy a chance to take root. Both Congress and the administration share a common resolve that the preferred way to get Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program is through diplomacy. But we must be prepared to test Iran’s sincerity to comply with these latest efforts to keep them from acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities. Iran’s track record gives us good reason to have new and stronger sanctions at the ready.”
Orde Kittrie, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a professor at the Arizona State University law school, said the senators’ call for new sanctions if Iran refuses to comply shows that Congress is frustrated. “So far a joint plan of action remains all plan, no action,” he said during a teleconference call sponsored by the Israel Project.
Iran’s refusal to allow the plan to go into action “is, for some, an indication that the past is repeating itself. Iran is playing games,” Kittrie said. However, Iran is already benefiting, he said. Just the mention that sanctions will be reduced has boosted Iran’s economy and increased its oil exports by 10 percent, he said.
While the senators intend to show they mean business, much of their proposal is hardly enforceable, Kittrie said. The new sanctions will only be imposed if President Obama certifies that Iran is not in compliance, Kittrie said, noting, “It looks like the president is provided with several waiver windows.”
The legislation serves “a political purpose even just being introduced. It sends a statement,” he said.
Several Jewish organizations that tend to support Obama and are aware that this administration believes increasing sanctions will have a negative influence on upcoming negotiations have instead publicly praised the senators’ legislation.
The American Jewish Committee called for a diplomatic solution but noted on its website that “skepticism is justified about the interim deal reached in Geneva and the prospect that a final agreement will eliminate the threat. Iran sows regional instability, supports terror and endangers Israel and our Gulf allies. Sanctions, which created the economic and political pressure that brought Tehran to the table, must remain in place. AJC supports Senate efforts to ready additional sanctions should Iran violate the interim agreement or should a final deal not be reached.”
Jewish Federations of North America President and CEO Jerry Silverman noted in an email that while they “stand firmly” behind Obama, “We recognize economic sanctions have been successful in bringing Iran to the negotiating table, as well as in expressing the resolve of the global community.”
Silverman continued, “The threat of additional sanctions, with the appropriate presidential waivers in this legislation, ensures that Iran knows this and all other options are on the table should negotiations fail.”
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs called strong sanctions the best route to a peaceful solution. “Our goal is not to inflict any more economic pain on the Iranian people, but rather to achieve a lasting, negotiated solution,” said JCPA chair Larry Gold.
The World Jewish Congress, North America and the Anti-Defamation League also issued statements in support of the sanctions legislation.
However, Americans for Peace Now condemned “in the strongest terms” the legislation and urged “Senate leaders to refuse to move this ill-timed and highly problematic legislation forward.” APN asked the senator supporters “to recognize their error and retract their sponsorship.”
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington sent out an email to its members urging them to thank Cardin and Warner for their support and to urge Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) to sign on.
Earlier, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel took out a full-page ad in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal that carried the headline, “Iran must not be allowed to remain nuclear.” That ad was sponsored by Birthright cofounder Michael Steinhardt, who founded This World: The Values Network along with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in New Jersey in 2012.
Referencing that ad, Kirk told The Times of Israel that he read Wiesel’s call for the Senate to move forward with new sanctions. Kirk copied the ad on his Twitter page and wrote, “In powerful @nytimes ad Elie Wiesel urges Sen to move fwd w/ new #Iran sanctions. We should & we will.”
Suzanne Pollak writes for JT’s sister publication, Washington Jewish Week.