Embattled Iran sanctions bill officially submitted to Congress

Legislation would impose punitive measures should talks fail; Democratic sponsors commit to delay final vote until March 24

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Senate Banking Committee member Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. gives his opening statement on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015, during the committee's hearing on Iran sanctions. (AP/Susan Walsh)
Senate Banking Committee member Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. gives his opening statement on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015, during the committee's hearing on Iran sanctions. (AP/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON – A controversial bill that would impose strong additional sanctions on Iran should nuclear talks fall through was officially filed late Tuesday night, even as one of its key sponsors – Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) – promised to hold off on a final vote until March 24. The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015 is the focus of intense lobbying and the motivation underpinning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned address to the US Congress on March 3.

The Obama administration staunchly opposes the bill, which proposes heavy sanctions if no comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran is reached by the current twice-extended July 1 deadline. President Barack Obama used precious talking time during his hour-long State of the Union speech last week to warn that he would veto the bill – or any similar legislation.

The bill was backed by senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Menendez with an additional 14 original cosponsors. The list includes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and six Democrats in addition to Menendez. The bill’s proponents said that they plan to sign on additional senators this week.

The legislation contains a number of provisions that make it more moderate than a similar bill submitted last year. It would see the failure to produce a deal by July 6 (five days after the official deadline) as a trigger for additional sanctions, a provision that proponents say will pressure Iran to reach an agreement, but which opponents say will give Iran fodder to argue that the US negotiated in bad faith.

In the Joint Plan of Action, the US committed not to impose any new sanctions during talks, a commitment that Menendez argues is not violated by this bill.

According to the bill’s sponsors, the new sanctions would “close loopholes in existing petroleum sanctions, enhance sanctions on Iran’s oil trade and financial transactions, and impose further sanctions on Iran’s senior government officials, family members and other individuals for weapons of mass destruction proliferation, terrorism sponsorship and other illicit activities, and on Iran’s shipbuilding, automotive, construction, engineering and mining sectors.”

The Kirk-Menendez legislation also increases the current congressional oversight of the negotiations, requiring the administration to formally submit any new nuclear agreement text or extension to Congress within five days. Congress is allotted 30 days to review any nuclear agreement before the president can waive, defer or suspend sanctions.

The bill includes a presidential waiver with which, subject to a report and certification, the president can waive sanctions if it is in the vital national security interest of the United States or if a waiver would make a long-term comprehensive solution with Iran more likely.

If there is no final agreement by July 6, the Kirk-Menendez bill would automatically re-impose the sanctions that were suspended when the negotiations were ongoing, and work to impose new ones.

Committee work on the bill is expected to begin on Thursday, but Menendez and a group of Democratic senators made a commitment earlier Tuesday that they would not take a final vote on the bill before March 24.

On Tuesday morning, Menendez, together with nine other Senate Democrats, wrote a letter to the White House promising that they “will not vote for this legislation on the Senate floor” before that date.

“After March 24, we will only vote for this legislation on the Senate floor if Iran fails to reach agreement on a political framework that addresses all parameters of a comprehensive agreement,” they continued. The March date is pegged to coincide with the current timetable for P5+1 negotiations with Iran — US negotiators say by late March they hope to reach a “political framework” to pave the way for a comprehensive agreement by July 1.

Seven of the ten senators who signed the letter – Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Gary Peters (D-MI), Bob Casey Jr. (D-PA), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Joe Donnelly (D-IN) and Menendez – were original co-sponsors of the legislation submitted Tuesday.

In a quintessentially Washington moment, both the bill’s proponents and its opponents cast developments Tuesday as indicative of success.

Following the State of the Union, and particularly following the Washington back-and-forth surrounding Netanyahu’s invitation to address Congress, a number of key Democrats appeared to have backed away from the bill. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and likely Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton voiced their opposition to legislation that would impose new or future sanctions on the Islamic Republic while talks were underway. Groups that lobbied against the bill said Tuesday that the administration’s stern warning to Democrats to hold back on the legislation had worked, and that last week’s debacle surrounding Netanyahu’s planned speech to both houses of Congress on the topic had reinforced the bill’s opposition.

For the bill’s supporters, Tuesday’s developments demonstrated that the tide of the past week had turned, and that the bill remained viable. Against doomsday proposals that Democrats would all start to disassociate from the legislation, almost a quarter of Senate Democrats signed the Menendez letter. Even at the high point of attempts to pass similar legislation in the Democratic-controlled Senate last year, only 16 Democrats signed on as co-sponsors – and of those 2014 Democratic co-sponsors, only two of those who are still in the Senate did not sign Tuesday’s letter.

“We believe that this bill, as introduced, is reasonable and pragmatic, respects the nuclear negotiating timeline, and sends a strong signal to Iran and to the international community that endless negotiations under the interim agreement are dangerous, unacceptable, and could leave Iran with a threshold nuclear weapon capability,” the letter said.

Some proponents of the bill cast the letter as an ultimatum to Obama: we’ll give you a respite, but there needs to be plausible progress in the next two months, or else.

In a second interpretation, at least one lobbyist active against the bill argued that the deadline was itself non-binding, and that the letter only signified that no vote would be held before the March date.

Netanyahu’s office also rebutted claims that “sanctions legislation in the US Congress was canceled.” The Prime Minister’s Office, like the bill’s American proponents, said that the senators had “merely pushed off the vote” but emphasized that “this is why the prime minister’s speech to Congress was so important, because there he will explain the danger [posed] of an Iranian nuclear weapon to Israel and the agreement coming together between Iran and the P5+1.”

The bill’s opponents, however, argued that the letter was merely a stalling tactic, giving Menendez more time to try to rally the remaining Democratic votes necessary to override a presidential veto.

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