Since suffering a near-fatal stroke last January, two tasks have obsessed Senator Mark Kirk from his encampment at a Chicago rehabilitation center: relearning how to walk, and expanding the economic war the Illinois Republican has been leading against the Islamic Republic of Iran for the past decade.
Kirk is best known as the co-architect with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) of the toughest banking sanctions in history. But his work on Iran sanctions goes back years. In the '90s, Kirk served as counsel to House International Relations Committee chairman Ben Gilman, who spearheaded the congressional crackdown on Iranian and Libyan finances. Kirk went on to win a congressional seat in 2000, where he targeted Iran's oil market and cofounded the House Iran Working Group.
Upon joining the Senate two years ago, Kirk helped craft the "Kirk-Menendez sanctions," an amendment to the 2012 defense authorization bill that barred U.S. and international financial institutions from working with Iran's central bank.
"The notion is that if you can cause economic collapse, or at least bring the regime to the brink of economic collapse, then you can potentially break the nuclear will of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei," says Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an expert on sanctions.
The amendment passed Congress in late December 2011. Weeks later, Kirk woke up with a relentless headache. While driving to a Polish community event in Chicago, Kirk lost feeling in his hands, and his eyesight blurred. He asked his staff driver to drop him off at the hospital. The walk from the car to the emergency room was the last time anyone from Kirk's office saw him walk unaided.
Kirk was having an ischemic stroke on the right side of his brain; the attacks came in waves, and his condition deteriorated in the hours that followed. The internal swelling was severe enough to warrant three surgeries: one to remove a portion of his skull, another to excise dead brain tissue, and a third to replace the bone after the swelling subsided.
Since then, Kirk has been secluded at a rehab center in Chicago and his home in Illinois, working to regain mobility on the left side of his body. Unbeknownst to many outside Capitol Hill, Kirk has also been working behind the scenes to tighten the screws on Iran—pushing for expanded sanctions, conferring with top-level Israeli officials, and sparring with Senate Democrats, in between a grueling routine of rehabilitation exercises.
An aide who was with Kirk when he woke up from surgery says the senator began talking about beefing up sanctions almost immediately. His staff resumed his regular briefings, and his calls to colleagues often drifted to Iran.
"Mark and I, and our staffs, have had multiple and ongoing conversations during his recovery and his input was critical in this effort," says Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Dubowitz, who worked closely with Kirk's office before and after the stroke, says the senator has "probably done more from his hospital bed than most senators have done from their offices on this issue."
"We've certainly seen a lot of very thoughtful, detailed proposals that have come out of his office since the stroke," Dubowitz adds. "A number of which were adopted in the last round of legislation."
Kirk has also been in touch with the Israeli embassy and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In March, Kirk watched Netanyahu's annual address to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee from the inpatient room at his rehab center. "I want to say a special message to a great friend of Israel who's not here tonight, Senator Mark Kirk," said Netanyahu. "Senator Kirk, I know you're watching this tonight. Please get well soon. America needs you. Israel needs you." The audience erupted in applause.
Not long after, Kirk called his Washington staff and asked them to offer an amendment on his behalf expanding banking sanctions and targeting Iran's energy and insurance sectors. The proposals were met with strong private resistance from the White House and Senate Democratic leadership, which first tried to block them and then added language watering them down.
Of course, neither the White House nor Democratic leadership wanted to publicly stand in the way of sanctions, and Republicans managed to add binding provisions in conference. It wasn't everything Kirk had hoped for, but it was close. In August, President Obama signed the bill into law.
Meanwhile, Kirk was dealing with other obstacles in Chicago. He was slowly relearning to walk, practicing on a treadmill and stairs. A video released by his office four months after the stroke showed Kirk struggling down a hallway with a quad cane and oxygen mask, flanked by several medical aides. Two months later, the cane and mask were gone. By the end of the summer, Kirk was able to return home and start outpatient treatment.
The language-dominant side of the brain (the left side for most people) controls communication. Kirk's stroke was on the right side, which handles executive functioning, including memory and focus. Still, his staff maintains that he's as sharp as before, when he developed a reputation for being able to rattle off precise details, like the names of Turkish banks enabling illicit trade for Iran. In Illinois, he keeps up with Washington developments through multiple daily conversations with staff, TV news, and occasionally on his iPad.
There are lingering challenges. The videos released by Kirk's office show some paralysis on the left side of his face, which causes subtle speaking irregularities. He doesn't use his left arm in the footage, giving credence to reports that it may never regain full function. But those who have met with him in Chicago say his recovery has been impressive.
"Senator Kirk is a great friend, and I am really encouraged by his progress," says Scott Brown, the outgoing Massachusetts senator, who visited Kirk in rehab. "While he's working very hard to recover, he's still focused on policies to help his constituents and our country. He continues to be a leader on preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon."
Last week, Kirk's office announced that he will be back in Washington in January in time for the next session. That would mark a full year since his stroke, and nearly a year into maximum-force sanctions that have devastated the Iranian currency but haven't halted the regime's nuclear program.
In the months Kirk was away, Iran increased its supply of 20 percent-enriched uranium by one-third; it doubled the number of nuclear centrifuges at its underground Qom facility between May and August, according to a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Kirk, for his part, is working on new legislation expanding banking and energy sanctions, which he plans to introduce toward the end of the year.
"On the sanctions dial of zero-to-10 we're probably at a 7," Dubowitz said. "We need to get to a Spinal Tap 11."
And so Kirk keeps building the pressure on Tehran, focused and methodical, the same way he paces the treadmill and mounts the stairs—on November 3, he made his first public appearance at a Chicago fundraising event, climbing three dozen flights of stairs inside Willis Tower.
His recovery is far from over. But the world doesn't stop spinning, and neither do Iran's centrifuges.