Yesterday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the status of US efforts to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran put on display a surprising disconnect between some of the Senate’s most hawkish members and a stacked panel of “experts,” all of whom were probably expected to agree with Senate hawks.
The hearing went to plan early on, with the panelists—David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security; Gary Samore, president of the hawkish United Against Nuclear Iran pressure group; and Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute—expressing concerns about extending negotiations through March and backing increased sanctions should negotiators fail to reach an agreement by the new deadline.
But the wheels came off in the second hour of the hearing when the committee chairman, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), raised the possibility of sanctions that would be implemented automatically at the end of March if there is no agreement between the P5+1 and Iran.
“Something that makes them understand that there are consequences for not coming to the conclusions that are necessary to actually make a deal that the international community could support,” Menendez said. “And signaling to them that this is not an endless rolling negotiation which you can just game but something you have to come to grips with.”
Gary Samore, the White House’s former non-proliferation czar, quickly shot Menendez’s trigger-sanctions down.
“My concern is that some in Iran might actually welcome such legislation because they could very well calculate that it will put more pressure on the P5+1 to make additional concessions in order to get a deal to avoid having the old sanctions imposed and then going back to the previous situation,” he demurred.
David Albright jumped in as well, warning that such legislation could actually push Iran to further develop their nuclear program. “Trigger sanctions, where they come into effect in a mandatory way, is perceived by the Iranians as putting a gun to their head and leads them to put together trigger-advancements in their nuclear program,” he said.
The panel also expressed concerns over the failed effort by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bob Corker (R-TN) to automatically impose sanctions if negotiators failed to reach an agreement by the November deadline.
Albright warned, “The fact that Congress was not on board [with the Agreed Framework] was a severely corrosive factor, so I think it’s important the administration works with Congress to make sure this is a united effort.”
Samore, who earlier in the hearing warned that congressional attacks on the White House’s diplomatic outreach sends the wrong message to international allies, added, “I think the administration would be reluctant to accept such legislation when there’s such a divergence between what they think a deal is going to look like and what Congress has expressed as the essential elements of a deal.”
Menendez, visibly dismayed that his hearing had failed to produce expert approval of his “trigger sanctions” and efforts to constrain the acceptable terms for a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran, adjourned the hearing shortly thereafter.
Senate hawks, however, need not hang their heads: reinforcements are on the way. Next year, Tom Cotton (R-AR), a favorite in the neoconservative corner of the Republican Party, joins the upper house.
Yesterday, the Senator-elect tipped his cards, revealing that he had no intention of supporting a negotiated resolution to international concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.
“I hope that Congress’s role will be to put an end to these negotiations,” Cotton told a roundtable of reporters. “Iran is getting everything it wants in slow motion, so why would they ever reach a final agreement?”
Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS), participating in the same roundtable, urged the United States and its allies to strongly consider a pre-emptive bombing campaign of Iran’s nuclear sites.“In an unclassified setting, it is under 2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity. This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces,” Pompeo said. (Even though such an attack would likely only delay, rather than prevent Iran’s nuclear progress.)
While Senate hawks are typically careful to avoid an outright call to end diplomacy and steer the United States into a third war in the Middle East, the Senator-elect from Arkansas and Pompeo never got that memo. Although they are far from the only members of Congress to have quietly discussed a long-term goal of killing the P5+1 negotiations.
In September, The New Yorker’s Connie Bruck detailed how Representative Eric Cantor (R-VA), with AIPAC’s backing, introduced legislation in late 2013 designed to kill the interim agreement with Iran. Cantor eventually backed down, but the incoming Congress seems poised to take up his mantle.