There have been conflicting reports in recent days regarding a supposed agreement to halt the push for stronger US sanctions against Iran. The storyline is somewhat blurry: the White House “pushed-back” against sanctions, pro-Israel organizations (the “lobby”, as detractors of these organizations prefer to call them) called for tougher sanctions, and a meeting at the White House with leaders of the main Jewish organizations lead to a – well – that’s where the story becomes less clear… One report says there is a “time out” in the Iran sanctions campaign, another report explains that Jewish organizations are split on the sanctions issue, and another one denies that there is an agreement to delay the campaign for sixty days.
Is there a halt in the sanctions campaign? I was on the Hill yesterday for a number of meetings and I asked this question. The short answer I have for you is yes- there is a halt. As a new round of Iran negotiations begins tomorrow, no new sanctions should be expected in the coming days. That is, the Senate, quite reasonably, isn’t going to pass new sanctions just before or during the Iran talks. The administration was adamant in demanding that the legislature doesn’t interfere with the attempt to reach an agreement with Tehran, and it sent its heaviest advocates – including Vice President Biden - to the Hill to make that request. The Senate responded the way you’d expect it to respond.
And Jewish leaders weren’t much different.
They also heard what the administration has to say (we need room to maneuver; we need the Iranians to understand that they are dealing with an administration that can make a policy). If they showed some measure of good will this was not a great sacrifice: the meeting was just a couple of days ago, the talks begin tomorrow. The real question isn’t if and why a new sanctions bill didn’t pass before the talks, it is whether or not a bill is going to pass after the talks – i.e., a couple of days from now.
Last week, Senator Carl Levin publicly explained why he was convinced (as Barbara Slavin reported) that the administration deserves to get the delay it wanted. If “we respond to this possibility [of a nuclear deal] in a negative way, … if we tighten the screw when it looks as though the Iranian leadership … may be willing to talk about modifying, changing, making less threatening the nuclear program, we could lose the very countries - particularly Russia and China - who have stood with us to put sanctions in place. We should not at this time do something on top of what we have done.”
I was at Senator Levin’s office yesterday, late in the afternoon, to ask the follow-up question: what does “at this time” mean? Does it mean this week, this month, until all negotiations are over, until we see that the talks go nowhere? When will the time come for another tightening of the screw? For Levin, the right answer would be a “two month delay”. That’s what the administration asked for, and he finds it “reasonable”. Yet when I asked him whether his colleagues will accept a delay of such length he was somewhat skeptical and he acknowledged that the tightening of the sanctions on Iran might come much sooner.
How soon? In other meetings on the Hill I heard predictions saying it might be as early as next week, right after the round of talks with Iran. If the talks seem like a failure, this could happen by a vote on the law itself. But the easier way to pass Iran legislation would be using the National Defense Authorization Act as the vehicle with which to add more sanctions. This specific vehicle has been used in the past for the same propose, and could be used again soon, as legislators intend to pass the NDAA before Thanksgiving. Of course, things could become messy, as the NDAA this year is expected to be trickier than usual to pass because of other amendments which members want to attach to it – mostly related to NSA surveillance controversies.
The timing is perfect, though: negotiations begin tomorrow, work on the NDAA begins soon after (possibly November 18). Reports say: “Contentious debates and amendments are expected on a number of hot-button issues, including NSA domestic spying programs, detainee policy, the future of the Guantanamo Bay terrorist suspect detention center, sequestration and some big-ticket weapon programs”. Don’t be surprised to also find Iran sanctions on this list. And if Obama administration officials pretend to be surprised, don’t buy the show – they also know that it might be coming.