Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) is one of the Senate's foremost Middle East hawks as well as one of the Republican Party's more moderate voices on social policies. He is a vocal advocate of stiffening sanctions on Iran, has made a number of controversial remarks about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has expressed support for launching a U.S. strike on Syria.
An officer in the U.S. Naval Reserves and a former five-term House member, Kirk is one of Congress' top recipients of donations from "pro-Israel" advocacy groups, leading one critic to call him "AIPAC's Million Dollar Baby."
Kirk has been a leading proponent in the Senate of increasing sanctions on Iran over its nuclear enrichment program. He once argued that "it's okay to take the food out of the mouths" of Iranian citizens because of their government's actions.
In the lead up to the November 24, 2014, deadline for reaching a comprehensive nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1, Kirk and fellow Iran hawk Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) argued that "a good deal will dismantle, not just stall, Iran's illicit nuclear program." Kirk and Menendez also threatened "to work" with their "colleagues in Congress to act decisively" if a deal emerges that does not meet their standards, including imposing "stringent limits" on Iran's nuclear program that will last "for decades."
While President Obama has signaled he is looking for ways to circumvent Congress in providing sanctions relief in return for Iran scaling back its nuclear program as part of a deal, congressional action would eventually be required to remove permanently all U.S. sanctions on Iran.
In November 2013, shortly before Iran and the P5+1 negotiating powers reached an interim agreement that saw Iran cap its enrichment at 3.5 percent and submit to intrusive inspections in exchange for partial sanctions relief, Kirk told reporters that he was working closely with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to push new sanctions through the Senate. Kirk also launched unusually personal attacks against the Obama administration diplomats charged with shepherding the deal, deriding them as political appointees who "desperately want[ed] a New York Times article saying how great they are." Comparing himself to the famous Copernican scientist who was persecuted by the medieval Catholic Church for his beliefs, Kirk concluded, "Now I know exactly what Galileo felt like when he was dragged before the papal court."
Kirk argued that more sanctions were necessary to get Iran to agree to a deal, even as talks were already underway between U.S. and Iranian negotiators—an approach that critics warned could sink any prospects for a deal. Invoking a common neoconservative analogy likening the U.S. standoff with Iran to the run-up to World War II, Kirk at one point complained to reporters that "This administration, like Neville Chamberlain, is yielding a large and bloody conflict in the Middle East involving Iranian nuclear weapons that will now be part of our children's future. And the best way to prevent that from happening is to continue sanctions."
Kirk's remarks followed a supposedly confidential hearing in which Secretary of State John Kerry urged the Senate Banking Committee to let negotiations proceed before considering new rounds of sanctions. Kirk claimed that Kerry had told him to dismiss an Israeli assertion that a proposed interim agreement between Iran and its international negotiating partners would only delay Iran's enrichment activities by 24 days."The pitch was very unconvincing," Kirk opined. "It was fairly anti-Israeli. I was supposed to disbelieve everything the Israelis had just told me, and I think the Israelis probably have a pretty good intelligence service."
"So," observed former CIA analyst Paul Pillar in response to Kirk's claim, "a United States senator was calling the U.S. secretary of state and the vice president liars because of what a foreign government had told him." Pillar called Kirk's advocacy for the Israeli government's position "the most extreme form of any member of Congress, to the point of being a caricature," and accused Kirk of "doing everything he can to overturn a diplomatic process designed to prevent both a war and an Iranian nuclear weapon."
Kirk also directed a barb at Iranians. "How do you define an Iranian moderate?" he asked reporters. "It's an Iranian who is out of bullets or out of money." The quip drew a swift condemnation from the National Iranian Affairs Committee (NIAC). "The 18 million Iranians who defied the odds and voted for change in this year's presidential elections might take issue with Senator Kirk's insulting characterization," said NIAC policy director Jamal Abdi, referring to the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who campaigned in 2013 on reaching a diplomatic accord with the West. "Kirk has been more effective than any regime hardliner in convincing the Iranian people that, no matter what they do, the U.S. government will stand against them."
"Making ignorant and belligerent comments about Iran has now become a form of Republican electioneering," quipped a writer for the American Conservative. "If this is what passes for foreign policy thinking among top Republicans, the party is in a very bad way."
Previously, Kirk co-authored, along with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Iran sanctions legislation that passed the Senate in late November 2012. According to the Wall Street Journal, the sanctions, which were attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, "target Iran's energy, shipping and shipbuilding sectors, already in the sights of U.S. sanctions. But the legislation goes further, restricting trade with Iran in precious metals, graphite, aluminum and steel, metallugrical coal and software for integrating industrial processes."
In 2011, Kirk spearheaded a campaign aimed at pressuring President Obama to adopt Iran sanctions that observers argued Tehran could interpret as an act of war. The proposed sanctions, targeting Iran's central bank, were supported by most Senate members and applauded by key elements of the "pro-Israel" lobby, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In a press release, the lobby stated: "AIPAC applauds today's bipartisan letter—signed by 92 U.S. Senators—to the administration urging it to sanction the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), or Bank Markazi. The letter, spearheaded by Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), notes that the CBI lies at the center of Iran's strategy to circumvent international sanctions against its illicit nuclear program." (For more on the sanctions, see "New Iran Sanctions: Following the 'Yellowcake' Road to War," Right Web, August 12, 2011.)
Kirk was also a leading supporter of the 2009 Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, which according the Congressional Research Service would prevent the United States "from providing credit, insurance, or guarantees to any project controlled by any energy producers or refiners that contribute significantly to Iran's refined petroleum resources." Although loudly promoted by Kirk and other hardline "pro-Israel" figures, the bill was sharply criticized by many observers, who claimed it would "hurt the Iranian people while having little effect on the leadership sanctions are supposed to put pressure on; undermine the Obama administration's attempts at engagement with Iran under a multilateral negotiating framework; and isolate the U.S. by antagonizing crucial allies in the UN Security Council." A version of the bill was eventually passed and signed by President Obama in July 2010.
Kirk's hardline stance on Middle East issues, which has included supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq, has earned him considerable support from "pro-Israel" donors. According to data collected by OpenSecrets.org, Kirk has been a top recipient in the House of campaign contributions from political action committees (PACs) that support Israel. Kirk has said that ensuring "the survival of the state of Israel in the 21st century" was "the reason why I ran for the Senate" in the first place.
Commented M.J. Rosenberg, a writer who formerly worked as an editor for AIPAC, "Why do the PACs love him? It is because Kirk is a pure Israel-firster. For Kirk, Israel can do no wrong. Add to that that he sits on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations where he brings home the bacon for Israel big time. ... I would not categorize him as pro-Israel because that would require supporting an end to the deadly status quo. Mark Kirk is just pro-AIPAC and shaking the trees for all the campaign money he can get by his hate rhetoric about Arabs. Playing like he's 'pro-Israel'—and not just pro lobby—has paid off very very well for him."
Kirk has drawn other criticism for his strident views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At a Washington rally for Israel held during the invasion of Gaza in early 2009, Kirk said, "To misquote Shakespeare, something is rotten in Gaza and now it's time to take out the trash." A U.S. military veteran commented on Daily Kos, "People who throw around such cavalier remarks have never watched a civilian bleed to death on a battlefield after being cut down in the crossfire. To people like Congressman Kirk, combat doesn't involve real people in real situations. Just numbers, ideologies, terrorists, and 'trash.' It's the same reckless attitude that birthed George W. Bush's 'bring'em on' statement and many others like it."
Kirk's hardline views on the Middle East were also in evidence in his opposition to the nomination of Chas Freeman to a key intelligence post in the Obama administration. Freeman, a highly regarded diplomat and scholar of Middle East issues who has spoken out against one-sided U.S. support for Israel, eventually withdrew his nomination in early 2009 because of the uproar over his views, which was led by a number of high-profile neoconservatives, including former AIPAC official Steven Rosen. Kirk contributed to the opposition by co-authoring a letter with Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) that pointed to Freeman's business dealings as raising potential conflicts of interest, which was one of several attempts by opponents to call into question Freeman's patriotism.
Kirk is a moderate on many social and domestic issues, generally supporting abortion rights, gay rights, and some efforts to combat climate change.
But Kirk has also supported a number of controversial domestic policies, especially on immigration. In a statement released shortly after Kirk announced his Senate candidacy in July 2009, the Chicago office of the Council on Islamic-American Relations (CAIR) stated, "In 2005, Kirk stated that he was 'Okay' with racial profiling directed at Arab males from 'terrorist-producing states.' Kirk notably voted in favor of many anti-immigrant bills proposed in Congress, including the infamous Sensenbrenner bill (HR-4437), which would have made criminal felons of priests, nuns, doctors, teachers, and even family members who helped undocumented immigrants. He has also come under fire from immigrant rights groups after indicating that he supports family planning as a way to curb Mexican immigration to the United States."
According to his congressional website, Kirk, an intelligence officer in the Naval Reserves, "became the first House member to deploy to an imminent danger area since 1942 when he served as special advisor for counternarcotics in Kandahar, Afghanistan" in 2008-2009. The bio adds that Kirk "also served in Iraq, Haiti, and Bosnia and in 1999, was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal for his service in Kosovo."
Before running for office, Kirk "worked on the staff of his predecessor in the House, Congressman John Porter, a former Representative of Illinois' 10th District, and also spent two years at the State Department as Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State. Mark then went into private law practice and eventually became counsel to the House International Relations Committee, a post he held until 1999."