Congress Guns for Iran, While the Administration Focuses on Engagement

How Congress united behind sanctions, and why that push may be stalling as the Administration seeks a diplomatic breakthrough...

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Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

In a Washington these days characterized by hyper partisanship, the last four years of near unanimous votes on sanctioning Iran has been striking. They have also been a thorn in the Administration’s side. As State Department diplomats try yet again for a breakthrough at talks in Istanbul at the end of the month, two more bills further tightening the restrictions against Iran are in the works on the Hill.

At best, Congress plays bad cop to the Administration’s good cop. Negotiators can say their hands are tied, that unless Iran changes its tune there’s little President Obama can to do to stop Congress. At worst, the bills complicate delicate negotiations and goad an already angry regime. While sanctions legislation has been a successful stick, pushing Iran’s economy to the brink, the Administration has reached a point where its focus is on reaching a diplomatic solution and avoiding a war.

Congress wasn’t always so unified on sanctioning Iran. Three separate tracks of Iranian sanctions legislation fell apart in 2007-2008 and as Obama took office in 2009 promising a new era of engagement with Iran, there wasn’t a lot of consensus on how to proceed. Over the course of 2009, Senators Chris Dodd and Evan Bayh, two of the backers of failed 2008 sanctions, picked up the threads of those bills and began to stitch together comprehensive legislation. Throughout the year, the Administration pushed for more time for diplomacy. But by the end of 2009, after the failed Green Movement revolution seemed to dash hopes of direct talks, Congress grew impatient. Bills passed both the House and Senate and in early 2010 even tougher banking and human rights language was added. But still, the administration asked for more time to get a sanctions resolution through the United Nations first. This ended up taking longer than originally anticipated because Lebanon chaired the Security Council at the time and did not want such an anti-Iran resolution passed on their watch. Ultimately, Congress held off and waited until the UN resolution finally went through in June 2010 and followed with the first major bill sanctioning Iran two weeks later, which passed by overwhelming majorities in both chambers.

By late 2010, though, members of Congress were openly accusing the Administration of dragging its feet in implementing the first round of sanctions. Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer of New York and Bob Menendez of New Jersey worked with Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, to draft a second bill that would sanction Iran’s central bank for any payments for oil coming into the bank. At the time, Europe was one of the largest consumers of Iranian oil. The Administration was even more hesitant on this bill, arguing that such legislation could take the teeth out of sanctions altogether. ‘What if you pass sanctions, threaten Europe and then countries don’t comply?’ they argued. ‘We’re not going to start a trade war with Europe over Iran.’ Another argument was that the bill could end up helping Iran if the price of oil spiked.

Then in early November 2011, French President Nicholas Sarkozy sent an open letter to European Union heads of state calling for an embargo of Iranian oil. Suddenly, the calculus changed and the Administration’s most powerful argument against the Kirk/Menendez bill (Schumer had dropped off by then) was undercut. The Washington Post ran an editorial accusing the Administration of not just leading from behind, but actually abdicating leadership to France. When Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Deputy National Security Adviser Dennis McDonough went to the Hill to ask yet again for more time, they found a Congress emboldened by France. By the end of November 2011, the Kirk/Menendez bill passed the Senate 100-0.

The Administration spent months carefully implementing this second bill. In order to not panic the oil market, State Department officials worked with Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Libya to increase production. They also spent time with the European Union and other major buyers of Iranian oil — China, India, Sri Lanka and Turkey — to find alternatives that wouldn’t damage their economies.

In May and June 2012, the P5+1 – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the U.S., Russia, China, France and Britain, plus Germany — held a series of six meetings, but nothing came of it. The Iranians wanted to wait until after the U.S. presidential elections to come to any deal and were incensed by, particularly, the oil embargo. In the last year the Iranian rial has lost more than 80% of its value. The sanctions were beginning to bite. By late summer of 2012, again frustrated by the Administration’s slowness to implement the two bills, Kirk and Menendez banded together once more to pass a third bill. Behind the scenes the Administration again tried to drag its feet. This third piece of legislation applied sanctions to transportation, precious metals, insurance and other industries. It passed in November again with overwhelming bipartisan support.

In early March, bipartisan legislation for a fourth round of sanctions against Iran was introduced in the House. But this time around, Kirk has been searching thus far in vain for a Democratic partner for his new bill. Menendez, now the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, seems less keen to stir up trouble for the Administration. After all, the sanctions Congress has already imposed on Iran are exceptional and foreign policy is the purview of the White House, not Congress.To hear Congress tell it, they have always been at least six months ahead of the Obama Administration when it comes to sanctions. To hear the Administration tell it, they have always supported a dual-track strategy of negotiations and sanctions and have carefully balanced both.

Iran has repeatedly and increasingly complained about the sanctions. “You are holding a gun against Iran saying, ‘Talks or you’ll fire.’ The Iranian nation will not be frightened by such threats,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Feb. 7. The concern among some diplomats is a stick works only so long before Iran might want to fight back. And in this case, the negotiations on the table are over a nuclear weapon — the biggest of all sticks. Though engagement has not worked in the past four years, Obama has repeatedly warned the window for negotiations is closing and Iran’s economic situation is increasingly dire. Despite the latest bills in Congress, the focus this year will be on a diplomatic push.