Behind-the-Scenes Dealings May Sink Sanctions Effort

February 13, 2014
BY Dmitriy Shapiro
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) addresses the AIPAC conference in 2013.  He has led the charge for an intensified Iran sanctions bill. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) addresses the AIPAC conference in 2013.
He has led the charge for an intensified Iran sanctions bill. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

A bipartisan coalition of Congressional legislators working behind the scenes may have prevented new sanctions on Iran.

A letter to President Barack Obama drafted by Reps. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) and David Price (D-N.C.) has been circulating on Capitol Hill for several days. A final call to sign the message, titled “Give Diplomacy a Chance Letter to POTUS,” made the rounds of congressional offices Monday after being sent by Jackson Tufts, a military legislative assistant to Price.

The letter, which according to Anya Malkov, a legislative assistant to Dogg-ett, had “more than 90 members, including several Republicans,” opposes additional sanctions as detrimental to the diplomacy being wrought by Secretary of State John Kerry in the quest to prevent the development of a nuclear-armed Iran.

“We understand that there is no assurance of success and that, if talks break down or Iran reneges on pledges it made in the interim agreement, Congress may be compelled to act as it has in the past by enacting additional sanctions legislation,” reads one of the final drafts of the letter. “At present, however, we believe that Congress must give diplomacy a chance. A bill or resolution that risks fracturing our international coalition or, worse yet, undermining our credibility in future negotiations and jeopardizing hard-won progress toward a verifiable final agreement must be avoided.”

JTA reported on the existence of the letter on Feb. 4.

According to Price’s office, the letter is supported by a number of organizations, but it began organically on the Hill sometime after the Jan. 28 State of the Union Address in which Obama vehemently criticized congressional action pushing for more sanctions. Organizations such as J Street, Plough-shares, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Win Without War and Americans for Peace Now are among those mobilizing their supporters in favor of the letter and against harsher Iran sanctions in general.

When contacted with questions about his organization’s involvement with the letter, a spokesman for J Street told the Washington Jewish Week that he would not be making public comments until the letter is finalized.

Another strong early supporter of the letter was Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a Muslim legislator whose office is rumored to have helped circulate the letter to other offices.

“A large number of House Democrats are unified against actions that could undermine diplomacy,” Ellison said in a statement to the Washington Jewish Week. “Negotiations with Iran are complex, and we may not reach a final agreement in exactly six months, but we’re the closest we’ve ever been to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”

But signatories also include Jewish representatives with known pro-Israel voting records.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) was one of the leads in the effort; Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) also signed the letter, according to his communications director. Yarmuth had been a vocal opponent of additional Iran sanctions even before the P5+1 agreement with Iran went into effect late last year.

“As an American first, but also as a Jewish American, I strongly support Israel’s security and our nation’s commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons,” Yarmuth said in a short speech on the House floor Jan. 15. “I also fully support advancing peace and stability in the Middle East through diplomacy whenever possible.

“We are in the midst of a historic opportunity to prevent nuclear proliferation in Iran, but it is fragile,” he continued. “Congressional interference at such a sensitive time is a high-risk, no-reward proposition.”

Other than the members of Congress who told WJW of their position on the letter when contacted, at press time, there was no official, comprehensive list.

Though 90 signatories is far from a majority, and there are no known plans for the House to take up sanctions legislation, the letter’s backers intend to balance the pro-sanctions voices in Congress.

Noah Silverman, congressional aff-airs director at the Republican Jewish Coalition, called the effort troubling.

“We’re very concerned that the message the Iranians are getting is that the president wants a deal at any cost,” he said.

As it stands right now, the legislative action on the matter is in the Senate in the form of the so-called Mendendez-Kirk bill, S. 1881. Last month, the Obama administration began lobbying the bipartisan bill’s Democratic sponsor, efforts which appear to have successfully turned the tide in the White House’s favor.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) spoke on the Senate floor supporting the legislation, which he, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and ranking leader Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) introduced in December 2013.

But Menendez backed away from asking for a vote. Rather, he admonished Senate Republicans for writing a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) asking him to send the legislation to the floor.

This is not the first time Price has co-authored a letter on Iran.

When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani came to power, Price, along with Rep. Charlie Dent, authored a letter urging Obama to engage in diplomacy with the new leader. The letter was reportedly signed by 118 members of Congress, including 15 Republicans.

Price sided with the minority in August 2013 when the House voted 400 to 20 in support of additional sanctions on Iran. Doggett voted in favor of that bill.

According to multiple House staffers familiar with the debate, the added support for the letter comes from what they view as tangible steps taken between Iran and the U.S. in the P5+1 negotiations that had not yet existed last fall.

JNS.org contributed to this story.
dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com

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