A monumental battle is shaping up in the United States Senate over the issue of new draconian sanctions against Iran. The House of Representatives has already passed a sanctions bill that would effectively shut down all remaining Iranian oil exports. A paralllel bill in the Senate has been so-far held back from a vote, but a bipartisan group of Senators, all under heavy AIPAC influence, are now vowing to ram through the sanctions bill regardless of the impact on the interim deal signed last month between the P5+1 and Iran. The White House is arguing, with considerable merit, that any new sanctions–even if delayed for the six month period of the interim agreement–would be seen as an act of bad faith and would likely guarantee that no final deal between the world powers and Iran would be feasible.
The Obama Administration has launched a serious effort to make the case that the Senate should refrain from such a flagrant act of sabotage. The National Security Council this week issued a 25-page paper to journalists showing broad bipartisan support for the deal with Iran. Unfortunately, the document only cited 17 Members of Congress who publicly backed the Administration. A second 19-page document was subsequently issued, showing broad international support for the negotiations with Iran. On Dec. 5, Wendy Sherman, Assistant Secretary of State for Political Affairs gave a classified briefing to every available Member of Congress. Secretary of State John Kerry, traveling in the Middle East to drum up support for the Iran negotiations, issued a video statement to Congress.
AIPAC has announced that passage of new Iran sanctions is their current number one legislative priority. Recently 76 Senators wrote to President Obama demanding a tougher stance with Iran. And a bipartisan group of senior Senators, including Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Bob Corker (R-Ten.) have vowed to push the sanctions through the Senate, either as a self-standing bill or an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
Corker was just in Saudi Arabia, where he was feted by Prince Bandar bin-Sultan, the head of Saudi Intelligence and the King's National Security Council. Bandar delayed his scheduled trip to Moscow to meet with President Putin to dedicate five hours to Corker, who also met with the Crown Prince, the Minister of Justice and the Head of the National Guard. He will no doubt return to Washington zealous to drive through the Iran sanctions.
The case for new sanctions was undercut by the fact that the French government already stepped in to strengthen the terms of the interim agreement by insisting that all construction had to be halted at the site of the heavy water reactor at Arak. The very same AIPAC and neo-conservative Senators and Congressmen who lauded the French (President Hollande was given a hero's welcome in Israel by Prime Minister Netanyahu after the French stalled the signing of the interim deal) for tightening the terms of the agreement are now the ones screaming the loudest that the deal–complete with the French revised language–is a sell-out to Tehran. Logic and truthfulness were never AIPAC's strong suits.
While President Obama is crashing in the polls, largely over the problems with Obamacare, the sequestration and the high unemployment, his foreign policy team, led by Secretary Kerry–not Susan Rice–is adament that Congress must stay out of the sensitive negotiating process. Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, has the power to block the sanctions from coming to a vote. But Reid himself is not immune to AIPAC's powerful checkbook, if the past is any prologue. Hardliners in Tehran would love to see the deal go down the tubes as the result of American sabotage rather than their own intransigence.
Between now and January 7, 2014, the Senate is scheduled to be in session for exactly six days. The battle over Iran sanctions, what some astute observers have described as "AIPAC's Waterloo," may spill over into the New Year. But sooner or later, as the final status talks progress and Iran demonstrates whether or not it will fully comply with the interim deal, the issue will come to a head.