Senate set to begin debating new Iran sanctions

Naftali Bennett tells Times of Israel he found Congress receptive to his points, US administration ‘gets’ Israel’s position on endgame

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

Economics and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett meets with Republican US Senator John McCain in Washington on November 14, 2013. (photo credit: Shmulik Almany/Flash90)
Economics and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett meets with Republican US Senator John McCain in Washington on November 14, 2013. (photo credit: Shmulik Almany/Flash90)

WASHINGTON — After two days of heavy lobbying Wednesday and Thursday from both opponents and proponents of new sanctions legislation, the US Senate seemed more likely than ever to begin deliberations on a new sanctions bill against Iran.

US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman tried Thursday to convince lawmakers to wait while Israeli Economics and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett lobbied for additional sanctions, but both sides attempted to talk down the apparent crisis of faith between the US and Israel.

“It’s not as if there is a chasm between us and the Americans,” Bennett told The Times of Israel after a long day pounding the halls of Congress Thursday. “We agree on the goal — the question is how to achieve it. I think that the administration is absolutely aligned with Israel on the objective of not allowing Iran to achieve a nuclear weapon. They get it.”

Bennett said that he “would not agree” with an assessment made by a fellow member of the Cabinet and his Jewish Home party that the tensions over an Iran deal have grown to such an extent that US Secretary of State John Kerry cannot serve as an honest broker. “This is a conversation between friends,” he emphasized after spending hours lobbying against Kerry’s chief deputy for Iran nuclear talks.

Bennett’s comments echoed statements made earlier in the day by Kerry himself, who told the American television station MSNBC that “what’s important here is we stand with Israel firmly — 100 percent.

“There’s no distance between us about the danger of the [Iranian nuclear] program and the endgame for us is exactly the same,” Kerry continued during an interview for that channel’s morning show.

It was however the route — and not the endgame — that shaped the battleground for the day of heavy lobbying on Capitol Hill.

Bennett said he found Congress receptive to his arguments, after meeting with over two dozen members of the House of Representatives and “a handful” of senators, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. John Isakson (R-GA).

“I think that we’ve made some progress,” Bennett remarked. “I think we’ve helped many folks in Washington get a broad view.” In addition to individual legislators, Bennett met Thursday with members of The Washington Post editorial board and the members of the Jewish Democratic Caucus, where he “found that there is a lot of understanding” for his point of view.

“There are many questions that have been asked,” Bennett explained. “There is an approach that says that if we engage, they will warm up sufficiently that they will make further concessions.” Bennett dismissed one of the administration’s reported talking points on Capitol Hill, arguing that “we feel that it is not the case that in six months there will be more leverage against Iran if there are fewer sanctions.”

In the course of his visit to New York and Washington, Bennett was not just confining his advocacy to closed-door meetings with members of Congress. He was also set to make Israel’s case in interviews with major US news outlets, including CNN.

Bennett has been studying history, too. “Some suggest that [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani is Gorbachev and we need to empower him,” Bennett explained. “But in fact it was America who turned Gorbachev into Gorbachev. The two sides met in 1986 at the Rejkjavik summit, and the US walked away from the talks in the end. But then when the Soviets came back the next time, they were ready to talk and it was a good deal.”

In a similar vein, Bennett argued before Congress members, increasing sanctions could force Iran into agreeing to a better deal. In his talking points, he likened Iran to a boxer. “He’s on the floor and the referee is beginning to count to 10 — this is not the point where you let off.” Despite the problematic use of the analogy, given the rules of boxing — while you wouldn’t offer a hand to your opponent, it is also illegal to “hit” him again while the ref is counting — Bennett’s point has found receptive ears in Congress.

Sherman had a more difficult line to toe, briefing both House and Senate leadership a day after she and Kerry briefed the Senate Banking Committee, facing, at times, openly hostile questioning.

After meeting with Sherman and other officials, Representative Eric Cantor (R-VA) still emphasized that “a vote on a sanctions bill would help” the US maintain its “posture” toward Tehran.

State Department officials were reluctant to discuss the efficacy of their lobbying effort.

“I’m not here to give you a whip count of where members of Congress stand,” State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday. “The secretary felt it was an important conversation he had with members yesterday; he laid out the full construct of our approach.

“He doesn’t feel that anybody could come out of there without a full understanding of what that approach would be. And the message he was conveying to members is that he fully supports sanctions,” she added. “They’ve worked. That’s why we’re at this point. But we have an obligation, a responsibility, to see if we can pursue a diplomatic path, and the question is: Why not wait a month? Why not wait six weeks and see if that will work?”

The push is also coming from within. This week, a bipartisan group of House members who support increasing sanctions circulated a letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) calling on the senate to “act swiftly to continue consideration of rigorous Iran sanctions legislation.” They noted — in support of their argument — that the legislation and implementation of new sanctions would be a lengthy process, and that it would therefore not “short-circuit” diplomacy.

The whip count is increasingly problematic for the administration. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NY) and Sen. Elliot Engels (D-NJ) both spoke out this week against the almost-deal in Geneva last weekend and in support of additional sanctions. Almost all of the 45 Republican members of the Senate have gone on record in support of increasing sanctions and only one senator, Chris Murphy (D-CT), has issued a statement against new sanctions at this juncture.

After Kerry’s briefing, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said that he supported “Secretary Kerry’s explanation of what direction and what needs to be done here and I support his intentions” and Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) has also said that he does not support increasing sanctions now.

Attempts to get key Democratic leaders like Reid and Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-SD) to give their opinion on record have gone unanswered. Johnson had previously agreed to hold off on sanctions legislation, which is expected to be routed through his committee — until after Kerry’s briefing. In the day after the briefing, no new schedule was released for hearings on the new sanctions.

The Democratic leadership will likely try to avoid having sanctions legislation popping up as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, a major — and must-pass — piece of legislation likely to come to the Senate floor next week.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) has already threatened to use the debate over the NDAA to get a vote on additional sanctions against Tehran.

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