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Cardin, the Iran Deal, and the Future of Plan B

With AIPAC failing to win a veto-proof majority of Senators to oppose the Iran deal, the lobby has shifted its approach to promoting proposals that would undermine the deal’s implementation.

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As most readers of this blog know, three more Democratic senators came out in support of the JCPOA today—Heidi Heitkamp, Mark Warner, and, most significantly, Cory Booker. That definitely puts the administration within reach of the magic 41 votes that would make it unnecessary for Obama to veto a resolution disapproving the Iran agreement.

That said, my understanding is that AIPAC’s Plan B is still very much in play and, if turned into a companion bill with the disapproval resolution, could still accomplish its goal of sabotaging the nuclear deal. In other words, declaring victory at this point would be very premature.

As I noted last night, Plan B is focused on bringing around nervous Democrats who, after supporting the administration, want to “kiss and make up” with the Israel lobby by showing their devotion to Israel’s security and their continued distrust and hostility toward Iran. What worries me are parts of the statements made by Booker and Warner in explaining their decisions to back the White House.

Toward the conclusion of his lengthy statement, Booker listed various items he said “must” be pursued “moving forward,” including,

Bolstering Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge: The U.S. should provide Israel with access to the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) to help deter Iranian cheating. The Administration should also fast-track the completion of a new 10-year Memorandum of Understanding with Israel to bolster our strong bilateral security partnership and cooperation with even greater levels of foreign military financing (FMF). The President has indicated to Congress that these talks will continue, but I would like to see a conclusion reached well before the implementation of this deal.

Renewing the Iran Sanctions Act: The Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) will expire at the end of next year. If sanctions are to snapback in the event of an Iranian violation, we cannot wait for Congress to pass new Iran sanctions. The Iran Sanctions Act must be renewed so that sanctions are at the ready in the instance of Iranian cheating.

Iran will likely consider the provision of MOPs to Israel—which was part of the draft “Iran Policy Oversight Act of 2015” I posted last night—to be extremely hostile. It will only strengthen Iranian hardliners in any debate over whether Washington is acting in good faith (although it’s worth noting that it’s the executive branch that decides whether or not to transfer specific weapons systems; Congress can only authorize the transfer). And Iran has already indicated that it would consider extending the ISA a violation of the JCPOA. If Congress were to extend it now through any companion legislation, it would have a very negative impact in Tehran, especially as the Majlis begins its own debate on the deal.

In his much shorter statement, Warner didn’t bring up the MOPs or ISA. But, like Booker, he stressed that he was “not satisfied” with the JCPOA “as a final measure and [thus] will support efforts to shore-up [sic] its weaker points,” including “clarifying,” among other things, “that there is no ‘grandfather clause’ to shield foreign firms in the event Iran violates the deal.”

This phrase, basically lifted straight out of the text of the draft Iran Policy Oversight Act of 2015, would amount to renegotiating the terms of the deal.

Now, neither senator said that these demands need to be met either at the same time as or immediately after Congress votes on the disapproval resolution. But my understanding is that that’s what AIPAC and its allies are pushing for.

I also understand that the still-uncommitted ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, is deeply involved in discussions over any possible companion legislation. He was also the pivotal figure in striking the compromise with Committee Chairman Bob Corker that resulted in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, which is the law that set up next week’s debate and vote on the disapproval resolution. His involvement is in some ways reassuring: the terms that he ultimately persuaded Corker to agree to were those that the White House, which had initially opposed the bill, decided it could live with. In fact, the final bill, while endorsed by AIPAC and the Republican leadership, infuriated hard-line neoconservatives who ultimately decided it was a “trap.”

But, at this point, it’s not clear how much Cardin is coordinating with the White House or how deeply involved in this very behind-the-scenes process the White House is. And, if indeed some form of the Iran Policy Oversight Act does make its appearance next week alongside the disapproval resolution, will it include the kind of “poison pills” that are included in Booker’s and Warner’s statements and that could yet derail the entire agreement with Iran?

I just don’t know, but Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association, which has played a leading role in campaigning for the JCPOA, offered a very timely tweet earlier this evening: “@SenatorCardin: Merits of #IranDeal are clear. Time to support it; take care not to sppt proposals that could undermine its implementation.”

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