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Iran Deal Out of Congressional Woods for 2013

The Israel lobby's failure to move new Iran sanctions through Congress before the Christmas recess marks a major setback for opponents of the interim agreement with Iran over its nuclear enrichment program.

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In what can only be considered a pretty substantial defeat for Bibi Netanyahu, neoconservatives, and the mainstream Israel lobby in Washington, lobby-led efforts in both houses of Congress to enact some form of new sanctions legislation or resolutions designed to undermine the Geneva nuclear deal before the Christmas recess have collapsed. The Cable blog has most of the essentials, including a copy of the resolution that Majority Leader Eric Cantor was working with Steny Hoyer to co-sponsor and pass before the House adjourns Friday here.

“Mr. Hoyer believes Congress has the right to express its views on what should be included in a final agreement, but that the timing was not right to move forward this week,” Hoyer’s spokesperson, Stephanie Young, told reporters in a statement.

On the Senate side, heavy lobbying by the administration, pressure from other leading Democrats, and grassroots efforts by national peace groups apparently dissuaded Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez, who had appeared determined to pass new sanctions legislation before the Senate recess, from co-sponsoring a bill with Mark Kirk which, at the very least, would have imposed new sanctions after the six-month term of the Geneva accord between Iran and the P5+1 unless Obama certified that negotiators were close to final agreement.

“I know I have a been a proponent of pursuing additional sanctions prospectively and in a timeframe beyond the scope of the six-month period of negotiations,” Menendez told reporters. “But I am beginning to think, based upon all of this, maybe what the Senate needs to do is define the end game, at least what it finds as acceptable.”

AIPAC and other leading Israel lobby groups believed since the Geneva deal was sealed that several Congressional avenues were available to undermine, if not kill the deal in its crib before the Christmas break. One was quickly pushing sanctions legislation passed overwhelmingly last July by the House through the Senate Banking Committee and get it quickly to the floor. But the committee chairman, Tim Johnson, ruled out that path earlier this week when he joined other key Democrats, including Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin and Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein, in concluding that now was not the time for new sanctions of any kind. A second channel was to tack on a sanctions amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), but Levin and the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, James Inhofe, made clear already last week they determined to move it through pronto with a minimum of fuss.

A final avenue, which is theoretically still open, was for Menendez and Kirk to introduce their own stand-alone bill on the floor at some moment before the Senate adjourns next week. It appears that the lobby’s strategy was to try to get a Cantor-Hoyer resolution passed by a large margin in the House and thus put additional pressure on the Senate to at least act on a Menendez-Kirk bill, a move that would have put Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who controls the calendar, in a very serious quandary. Reid, almost invariably a reliable supporter of the Israel lobby’s positions, also believes in loyalty to a Democratic president and party discipline. Reid could well have indicated his support for Obama, thus signaling to Menendez that forcing the issue could prove very destructive to Democratic unity. But Hoyer’s decision to desert Cantor — apparently communicated to the Majority Leader Thursday morning — clearly foiled the lobby’s strategy of using the House and its Republican majority as a lever to move  Reid and the Senate.

In any event, the lobby’s failure to get any sanctions legislation through before the end of the year marks a significant setback for it, the neoconservatives, and Netanyahu who, in clear defiance of repeated appeals by the administration, never backed off his public calls for more sanctions.  In some respects, this marks the third defeat in a row for the neocons and the more right-wing leadership of the lobby. They opposed Hagel’s nomination and lost; they supported Obama’s efforts to line up Congressional support for attacking Syria and lost. And they tried hard — much harder than in the Syria case — to get new sanctions legislation before the Geneva deal gathers serious momentum (as it may very likely do by the time Congress reconvenes, primarily through unilateral actions by Iran) and lost.

Moreover, they lost even when they backed off their maximum positions. At the outset, they were pushing for the Senate to pass the House sanctions bill, which was approved by a 400-20 margin. When they realized that was a non-starter, they began pushing for prospective sanctions; that is, those that would automatically take effect if Iran failed to comply with the deal or when the six-month term of the deal ended without a final agreement. Then they fell back to prospective sanctions after six months that would take effect only if Obama acquiesced. But even that couldn’t get sufficient Democratic traction. Their failure demonstrates once again that if a president is determined to win against the lobby — and Obama’s remarks at the Saban Center’s conference last weekend made clear that he was both determined and actually knowledgeable about the subject — he can win.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the battle is over. Far from it. Beginning next month and for at least the following five, neoconservatives and AIPAC — and their supporters in Congress — will do everything they can to get new sanctions and/or other legislation designed to sabotage the current deal or a final agreement that falls short of Netanyahu’s demands. You can be sure, for example, that January will see the introduction of legislation (see Menendez’s statement above) that will lay out the conditions of an “acceptable” final accord that are guaranteed to be unacceptable to Iran (such as insisting on an end to all uranium enrichment as a condition to lifting major financial or oil sanctions). The administration will find itself in a constant battle to fend off these initiatives and must be prepared to fight as hard as it has in the last three weeks — and it has fought very hard indeed — to prevent Congress from killing prospects for ending 35 years of hostility between Washington and Tehran. It won’t be easy.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the latest Congressional budget deal provides three times the amount of money — $284 million — that the administration had requested for funding joint U.S.-Israel defense cooperation in 2014. That’s in addition to the $3.1 billion a year that Israel receives in U.S. military assistance.

Jim Lobe is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy, particularly the neoconservative influence in the Bush administration. The Washington Bureau Chief of the international news agency Inter Press Service (IPS), Lobe has written for various outlets and was featured in BBC and ABC television documentaries about motivations for the US invasion of Iraq. 

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