Steve Sheffey
Pro-Israel writer and activist

Iran sanctions: Not a litmus test

President Obama announced on January 12 an agreement with Iran to implement the Joint Plan of Action (“JPA”) announced in November, under which Iran will start eliminating its stockpile of enriched uranium, dismantling some of its enrichment infrastructure, and allowing new and more frequent inspections.

If anything unites the United States Senate, it is the desire to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The pro-Israel community must be careful not to let anyone divide our community by suggesting that a Senator’s position on the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act (commonly known as “Kirk-Menendez”) indicates how seriously that Senator views the very real threat posed by Iran or, even worse, is some sort of litmus test of whether that Senator is pro-Israel.

The bill was introduced in December with 13 Republican cosponsors and 13 Democratic cosponsors. As of today, it has 43 Republican cosponsors (out of 45 Republicans) and 16 Democratic cosponsors (out of 55 Democratic Caucus members). Of the 10 Senators who identify as Jews, only three are cosponsors.

The JPA specifically states that “The U.S. Administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions.” Kirk-Menendez does the opposite, imposing sanctions that could be waived only under circumstances not specified under the JPA.

For example, Section 301(a)(2)(H) of the bill would impose sanctions if Iran “directly, or through a proxy, supported, financed, planned, or otherwise carried out an act of terrorism against the United States or United States persons or property anywhere in the world.”

As bad as terrorism is, and no one excuses the despicable acts of terrorism that Iran sponsors, linking terrorism to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons could be counterproductive if it leads to the imposition of sanctions that have nothing to do with Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons.

The sanctions regime that brought Iran to the negotiating table became effective only after the Obama Administration persuaded the international community, including Russia and China, to fully participate. By unilaterally imposing sanctions not agreed upon or contemplated by the other P5+1 countries, the bill risks undermining the sanctions architecture and, ironically, reducing rather than adding pressure on Iran.

The bill would also undermine the President’s authority and hurt the credibility of the United States. Congress is not institutionally capable of micromanaging foreign policy; the bill would rob the President of flexibility needed to successfully negotiate a final agreement.

We will undoubtedly hear, likely from unnamed sources, that Iran is violating this or that aspect of the JPA. No one, least of all the Administration, trusts Iran. President Obama himself has stated that the chances of reaching a final agreement are no more than 50/50. But enacting the bill now could reduce the chances of diplomatic success to zero and cause Iran to redouble its nuclear weapons efforts, thus making military action more likely.

The Administration is not asking for a blank check. The limited sanctions relief contemplated in the JPA is reversible and will be implemented over time, commensurate with Iran’s compliance and progress.

Reasonable minds can disagree with this analysis. Supporters of the bill argue that, as Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) recently wrote, “The proposed legislation is a clarifying action. It allows all sides to negotiate in certainties and provides one year of space for the parties to continue talking. It spells out precisely the consequences should the agreement fail.”

Should we have worked toward a final deal without an interim agreement and ratcheted up sanctions during that process? We’ll never know. Risking the JPA’s viability by enacting a new round of sanctions could put us in a worse position. Given that the JPA is in place and has a limited duration, we should focus on making it work rather than shifting strategy midstream, which necessarily requires that we defer on the timing of sanctions to those most directly involved in the negotiations.

Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) has said that new sanctions could be passed in 24 hours. Since Kirk-Menendez would not be implemented immediately even if enacted, perhaps the Senate should simply prepare legislation for passage if and when such legislation becomes necessary and only after giving diplomacy a chance to succeed. President Obama has repeatedly stated that the Administration will request and implement even tougher sanctions if diplomacy fails during this limited window, so that signal to Iran has been sent.

Supporters and opponents of the bill each believe that their position will prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and will make war less likely. Regardless of where we stand on this complicated matter, let us agree that one can be strongly pro-Israel, forcefully committed to stopping Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and still be on either side of this issue. Do not let anyone divide us with self-serving definitions of what it means to be pro-Israel. The truth is that the pro-Israel community is split on this issue, and we have nothing to fear from healthy, good faith debate.

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About the Author
Steve Sheffey was formerly the president of CityPAC, a pro-Israel political action committee based in Chicago. He is active in the Chicago Jewish and pro-Israel political communities.
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