Fresh from his re-election, President Barack Obama is wasting no time in moving to revive talks with Iran for an agreement on its nuclear-enrichment program. Even as the administration worked last week to contain the violence in Gaza, officials were hard at work formulating U.S. proposals to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. The president says he hopes to launch his new diplomatic initiative "in the coming months."
On Capitol Hill, however, another Iran initiative is under way. When the Senate takes up the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill as early as this week, Republican Mark S. Kirk of Illinois and New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez are expected to propose a raft of new sanctions against Iran as an amendment to the must-pass legislation. The new proposals would trump existing sanctions, effectively imposing an embargo on almost all forms of international trade with Iran and requiring other countries to freeze Iran's foreign currency reserves on pain of losing access to the U.S. market.
The White House and congressional initiatives represent sharply different approaches for dealing with Iran. The administration sees the existing sanctions as having already succeeded in bringing Iran to the table; now it's time to use them as leverage to gain Iranian concessions. Menendez, Kirk and their allies, however, see the United States in a losing race against Iran's quest for a nuclear weapon. They said their new sanctions bill — some have called it the diplomatic equivalent of the nuclear option — is needed to confront Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with an immediate and inescapable choice: Either abandon the enrichment program or face collapse of the economy and his regime.
"We are not about incremental sanctions. The time for incrementalism is over," says Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who has been working closely with Kirk and Menendez on drawing up the new sanctions bill. "What the sanctions say to Iran is that we're going to bring down your economy. We're going to collapse it, and we're going to do it fast. The only choice you have at this point is to return to the table and reach an agreement with us that satisfies your obligations under international law."
For a measure so fraught with political, diplomatic and strategic implications, there has been surprisingly little debate so far in Congress, or comment from the White House about its timing, its chances for diplomatic results or its ultimate aim.
Without granting the president significant waiver authority, such legislation might restrict Obama's diplomatic flexibility in negotiations with Iran, effectively allowing hard-liners in Congress to take control of what he can offer — and deliver. Even with a waiver, such legislation might strengthen Iranian hard-liners, who never liked the idea of negotiating with the United States in the first place, and torpedo Obama's diplomatic push. The United States would then move a giant step closer to military action against Iran's nuclear facilities — and the retaliation that inevitably would follow.
"This bill is ill-timed and counterproductive in every way, unless your only objective is to put coercive pressure on Iran in the hope that the Iranian regime will collapse, which it probably won't," says Gary Sick, an Iran expert who served on the National Security Council for both Republican and Democratic administrations. "In short, this is a bill to go to war with Iran. And for the most part, nobody in Congress is willing to stand up and say, 'Wait a minute, does this make any sense?'"
Kirk and Menendez have a track record of successfully amending urgent legislation to include stiff Iran sanctions against Obama's wishes. Last December, they attached an amendment to the 2012 defense authorization bill that sanctioned many transactions with Iran's central bank, the financial hub for Iran's oil trade. Despite White House objections, the Senate approved the amendment by a vote of 100-0. With the House also providing another veto-proof majority, Obama had little choice but to sign the bill into law.
Dozens of lawmakers from both parties have expressed enthusiasm for the new sanctions, even though many say they haven't yet read the proposal.
"I think it's a good idea," says California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee. "If you look at the history of the role of Congress in these things, the Congress always has been far ahead. We need to let Iran know that a lot of us are watching and things could get even tougher."
Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, vice chairman of the Select Intelligence Committee, says stiffer sanctions are needed to get the attention of Iran's leaders. "There's no problem in proceeding with tightening sanctions and make them tougher during this period of time when the president is supposedly trying to get more attention from the Iranians," he says. "They're just not paying any attention to us."
In fact, Iran watchers say, it was Obama who wouldn't come up with a negotiating agenda in April, when Iran sought sanctions relief at a first round of talks with the United States and five other major powers on the nuclear issue. Several former officials, speaking anonymously, say that Obama, in the middle of his second-term campaign, was concerned that any counterproposal involving a gradual lifting of sanctions would leave him exposed to criticism that he wasn't being sufficiently tough toward Iran.
After three sessions and several lower-level meetings, the talks stalled, with all sides waiting on the results of the U.S. election.
Obama now appears determined to make a last-ditch attempt to resolve the nuclear issue diplomatically. "I will try to make a push in the coming months to see if we can open up a dialogue between Iran and not just us but the international community, to see if we can get this thing resolved," the president said at his Nov. 14 news conference. "We're not going to be constrained by diplomatic niceties or protocols. If Iran is serious about wanting to resolve this, they'll be in a position to resolve it."
Last week, he sent Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman to Brussels for international talks on Iran.
The question is how constrained Obama will feel by Congress if the Menendez-Kirk proposals become law. Most negotiations between estranged countries involve lengthy rounds of bargaining and concessions.
"Diplomacy is going to be time-consuming," cautions Vali Nasr, a former Iran specialist on Obama's National Security Council and now dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "It's going to be a lot of back and forth and a lot of haggling over details."
The reality is that once the defense bill is signed, the president has very limited ability to make trade-offs without waiver authority, says Sick, now a professor of Middle East studies at Columbia University. "Congress is basically insisting that if the president is going to do a deal with Iran, Congress is going to control which sanctions he can remove and which ones he can't," Sick says.
Adds Paul Pillar, a retired Iran specialist at the CIA: "It makes it far more complicated for Obama to put convincing, deliverable offers on the table."
Window for Negotiations
A report by the International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran now has the capacity to double its output of 20 percent enriched uranium that can easily be turned into the core of a bomb. But the IAEA report says Iran hasn't stepped up production, leaving Obama and his international partners — Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — a window of several months to formulate a diplomatic solution that might avert military action.
Dubowitz says that as long as Iran's centrifuges are spinning, that window is closing. The urgent issue, he says, is the race to prevent Iran from becoming a so-called "threshold nuclear power," which is a country that has enough weapons-grade uranium to put together a bomb if it decides to do so. The closer Iran approaches that threshold, Dubowitz says, the more likely Khamenei can blackmail the United States and its partners by demanding immediate sanctions relief in exchange for an agreement not to cross that threshold. At such a point, he says, the United States and the major powers would split, with some opting for a policy of sanctions relief rather than military confrontation.
So, he argues, additional sanctions are needed to collapse Iran's economy before it can approach the nuclear threshold, which Israel puts at next summer. Dubowitz says the sanctions would need at least six months to change the calculus of the country's leaders. That means the sanctions would have to go into effect almost immediately.
"You want to intensify the sanctions to bring them to the point where they have to blink because they're staring at economic collapse and a threat to the survival of their regime," he says. "The only way to prevail is to put Khamenei in the position where he must choose between his nuke and his survival."
In addition to Menendez and Kirk, many other lawmakers have embraced Dubowitz's formulation. "I think ramping up sanctions would help the administration," says New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte. "If the president moves on trying to resolve the crisis with Iran, he can use us as the bad cop to say, 'You need to resolve this, or these are the types of sanctions that Congress is prepared to pass. You've already seen the detrimental impact on your economy. This is going to shut you down.'"
Support for the sanctions language isn't unanimous. Some lawmakers say Obama should be given more time for diplomacy before imposing Draconian measures. "I prefer diplomacy, then sanctions, then tougher sanctions, and see where you get," says Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, former chairman of the Intelligence Committee. "I'm not too sure you start off with a sledgehammer."
It's also far from clear that the additional sanctions would bring down the Iranian regime. Foreign trade experts say the measure is unlikely to win compliance from Iran's biggest oil customers, China and India, which won U.S. waivers from the last round of sanctions by reducing, but not ending, their oil purchases.
"The sanctions won't be effective unless you have cooperation from those parties," says William A. Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council. "Given their reluctance to cooperate with the last round of sanctions, it's hard to imagine they would climb aboard a new round."
Columbia's Sick and other Iran watchers suspect that hard-liners such as Kirk and Menendez don't believe the United States and its partners can ever resolve the Iran nuclear issue diplomatically. With measures like their new sanctions, they may really be interested in closing off all peaceful options, leaving military action as the only alternative.
The lawmakers reject such suspicions, noting that it was their last sanctions bill that brought Iran back to the negotiating table. By introducing new sanctions, they insist they are only trying to strengthen the president's negotiating hand.
In the past, both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations were able to use waiver authority to sidestep the toughest congressional sanctions on Iran, arguing that delicate diplomacy was at stake and Congress would be blamed if talks failed.
That argument lost its purchase when Congress passed the current sanctions over the administration's objections.
"Maybe patience has run out," Reinsch, a former staffer on the House Appropriations Committee, says of the atmosphere on Capitol Hill. "Maybe people just don't want to buy those arguments anymore. These things happen."
Any negotiations with Iran are likely to go on for some time, with the certainty that failure will amplify the prospects for another Middle East war. The problem — or benefit — of the new sanctions bill, depending on one's trust in diplomacy, is that it could bring the Iran nuclear issue to a head much more quickly.
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