Congress appears poised to give the Barack Obama administration some early Christmas gifts as it finishes its work for the year.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers from the House and Senate on Tuesday reached a budget compromise that, if passed by both bodies, would avert the threat of another government shutdown in early 2014. Meanwhile, a must-pass Pentagon spending bill put together in another Capitol Hill backroom omits new sanctions against Iran, which could torpedo the Nov. 24 nuclear agreement reached in Geneva.
Judging from comments in Congress this week, however, the Obama administration faces serious domestic hurdles to concluding a comprehensive agreement trading significant restraints on Iran’s nuclear program for lifting nuclear-related sanctions. The gap between what Iran and Congress might accept is wide.
Before leaving for the Middle East again to apply his seemingly endless energy to another intractable issue – Palestinian-Israeli peace – Secretary of State John Kerry gave a spirited defense of the Geneva deal to the House Foreign Relations Committee. The House voted last summer 400-20 to apply new sanctions against Iran, but no bill has been passed by the Senate.
Kerry argued that now is not the time for new sanctions against Iran, even with a delayed trigger.
“We’re asking you to give our negotiators and our experts the time and the space to do their jobs, and that includes asking you, while we negotiate, that you hold off imposing new sanctions,” he said. “Now, I’m not saying ‘never.’ I just told you a few minutes ago, if this doesn’t work, we’re coming back and asking you for more. I’m just saying not right now.”
Under the terms of the Geneva accord, which has a six-month duration but can be renewed, the United States, the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany (P5+1) offered limited sanctions relief to Iran and promised not to pass any new nuclear-related sanctions while negotiations proceed on a comprehensive agreement. In return, Iran agreed to a series of temporary constraints, including suspending 20 percent enrichment of uranium, which is dangerously close to weapons grade. Iranian officials have warned that new U.S. sanctions – even with delayed implementation – would kill the November accord.
Kerry explained that it was not just an American decision to withhold new penalties against Iran and that unilateral Congressional action would undercut unprecedented multinational support for a deal. If “Congress goes its own way,” other members of the P5+1 might “get squirrely on the whole idea of sanctions” and not follow suit, he said. New sanctions could also “give the Iranians a public excuse to flout the agreement.”
“This is a very delicate diplomatic moment, and we have a chance to address peacefully one of the most pressing national security concerns that the world faces today,” Kerry added. “We’re at one of those hinge points in history. One path could lead to an enduring resolution in international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. The other path could lead to continued hostility and potentially to conflict.”
Both Democrats and Republicans on the House committee expressed skepticism about the agreement, which allows Iran to continue to enrich uranium to low levels – but not increase its stockpile of uranium gas – for the duration of the accord. There were also clear signs that the administration will have trouble selling a comprehensive deal that includes even a limited enrichment program – which is Iran’s bottom line.
Committee chairman Ed Royce, a Republican, said that in his view Iran “simply can’t be trusted with enrichment technology because verification efforts can never be foolproof with respect to their ability to get undetectable nuclear breakout.”
The Obama administration has not yet defined its end game for the Iranian nuclear program but some hints emerged from Kerry’s testimony.
While Kerry said that uranium enrichment was not “locked in” to a final accord, he said in response to a question from Rep. Michael McCaul, that Iran might have a thousand or 500 centrifuges spinning as part of a comprehensive deal but under “severe restraints – a mutually-defined program with mutually-agreed parameters, consistent with practical needs.” Such needs would include medical research and fueling “a legitimate power program, which may be done in consortium with other people with intrusive knowledge of what’s going on.” Kerry said.
“So the answer is, at the end of this I can’t tell you they might not have some enrichment, but I can tell you to a certainty it will not be possible for them to be able to turn that into a weapons program without our knowing it so far in advance that all the options that are available to us today to stop it,” he said.
Iran currently has about 19,000 centrifuges installed, of which about 9,000 are operating. For it to be willing to scale back to only a thousand centrifuges would be a major concession from its point of view.
For now, skeptical congressmen lack a legislative vehicle to torpedo the Geneva accord.
Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat, on Tuesday released the text of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2014 which they hammered out with the senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee while Congress was on Thanksgiving recess.
Included are provisions to deal with sexual harassment in the military, detainees at Guantanamo and missile defense. But the only mention of Iran is a provision to expand an annual assessment of Iran’s military to include examining Iran-backed “terrorist and criminal groups.” The bill also requires a report on U.S. military partnerships with Iran’s Arab rivals in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and authorizes integrated air and missile defense with GCC members.
Other avenues to passing sanctions are also closing. Senate Banking Committee chairman Tim Johnson said Tuesday his committee would not act on a sanctions bill this year. That leaves it up to Senate majority leader Harry Reid to decide whether to bypass committee action and allow a vote on the floor on a sanctions bill sponsored by Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Democrat Robert Menendez, and Republican Mark Kirk. With the White House lobbying so hard against it and Congress due to recess for the year on Friday, passage appears doubtful this week.
Still, the threat of more sanctions in the future will play a role as negotiations continue. Iranian officials were undoubtedly watching the hearing, Kerry told the House committee. “And [when it comes to more sanctions] they know you’re yearning to go do it.”
Barbara Slavin as a senior fellow with the South Asia Center