Senator Kirk Puts Iran Sanctions Back in Play
A week ago, the White House was on top of the world. President Barack Obama announced a new framework agreement with Iran and five other great powers to resolve the long-standing stand-off over Iran's nuclear program. And after producing a detailed fact sheet, the White House got some unexpected good news: Sen. Mark Kirk, the Republican co-author of sanctions legislation the president had said would kill the talks if it passed, said he would shelve his bill until the June 30 final deadline for the nuclear discussions.
That promise is no longer operative. Kirk told me Thursday that he is pushing for a full Senate vote on his Nuclear Weapons Free Act of 2015, legislation he authored with Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat who was indicted last week by a grand jury on corruption charges.
Kirk initially delayed pushing for a full Senate vote on his bill because it appeared the president and Secretary of State John Kerry had actually gotten the Iranians to agree on a political framework for a nuclear deal -- the bottom line stipulation for an earlier agreement by 12 Senate Democrat supporters of Kirk's bill to hold off on voting for it.
Now Kirk feels that there isn't much of an agreement at all. As he told me Thursday, "Because Iran refuses to agree to the same framework for a final deal as the United States, and because Iran still strongly disputes basic issues like how a final deal will address comprehensive sanctions relief, uranium enrichment, and coming clean on Iran's military nuclear activities, I believe the full Senate should vote, sooner rather than later, on the bipartisan Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015."
The context here is important. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had been silent about the framework agreement until Thursday. At an official celebration for Iran's "National Day of Nuclear Technology," Khamenei said in effect that nothing was really agreed last week. He criticized the White House fact sheet on the deal, saying it "was wrong on most of the issues."
Khamenei did not stop there. He said he would not approve any deal that did not lift the sanctions against his country upon Iran signing the agreement. Kerry this week told PBS news however that sanctions would automatically be re-imposed on Iran -- with no prospect of a U.N. Security Council veto -- if an Iranian violation was detected for a period of time. Kerry's remarks suggests that sanctions would be lifted in full over a phased period of time, though he acknowledged the details would be worked out in a final deal.
Khamenei also Thursday ruled out international inspections of his country's military facilities. "Iran's military sites cannot be inspected under the excuse of nuclear supervision," he said. For more than a decade, the International Atomic Energy has been trying to gain access to many of these facilities to determine the possible military dimensions of the Iranian program. The Iranians until now have stonewalled the agency, which says there are at least 11 unresolved issues in this area. Kerry told PBS that Iran would have to answer on these issues. "If there’s going to be a deal; it will be done," he said.
It's possible the Iranians are bluffing. But in the last dispute like this, the Iranian side prevailed. After completing the interim agreement with Iran at the end of November 2013, Kerry went on the Sunday news shows and asserted the deal did not "recognize" Iran's right to enrichment. At the time, Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, said the opposite, asserting that the interim deal did. Today even the White House's disputed fact sheet says Iran will continue to enrich uranium with at least 5,000 centrifuges at its Natanz facility during the implementation of the agreement. While the deal doesn't explicitly acknowledge Iran's right to enrich uranium, it implicitly grants such a right by allowing Iran to enrich uranium.
Kirk's legislation is not the only bill in Congress related to the Iran deal. Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also has a bill that would give Congress the right to review an eventual Iran deal. But Kirk's bill is further along in the legislative process. At the end of January, his bill passed the Senate Banking Committee by a vote of 18 to 4.
If Obama wants to stop that legislation in its tracks, he will have to explain why Iran's supreme leader isn't being truthful. If he isn't willing to do that, members of Congress might conclude that Iran is the only party in these talks that still has red lines.
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