Commentary Magazine


Topic: Tim Johnson

Is Congress Bailing on More Iran Sanctions?

Prior to the signing of the nuclear deal with Iran, Congress seemed set to raise the pressure on Tehran with a new round of sanctions that will make it even tougher for the rogue regime to sell its oil. But in the weeks since Secretary of State John Kerry announced what he has claimed is a deal that is making both Israel and the United States safer, momentum for measures that would actually strengthen his hand in the follow-up negotiations has slipped. The administration’s pleas to hold off on sanctions make no sense since what created any sort of a window for diplomacy were the sanctions Congress already passed over the fierce objections of the White House and the State Department. Making them stricter to create a genuine embargo on Iranian oil (sales of which went up in November in part as a result of the sense that sanctions are on the way out after the deal) would be a perfect companion to talks. But while few in Congress seem to accept the logic of the arguments made by both Kerry and President Obama against sanctions, the number of those willing to directly challenge them on the issue seems to be dwindling, especially on the Democratic side of the aisle.

The latest evidence of this trend is the announcement today that House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer will not back an effort by Majority Leader Eric Cantor to create a nonbinding resolution calling for sterner measures against Iran. Up until this point, the Democrat had been as ardent an advocate of sanctions as any member, but his decision seems to illustrate that he has drunk the administration’s Kool-Aid on Iran. By saying “the time is not right” for even an expression of support for more sanctions (the Senate is now considering the tough sanctions already passed by the House), Hoyer had adopted the same wait-and-see approach Kerry and his aides have been selling on Capitol Hill. While some prominent Democrats, like Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez, have stuck to their guns on the need for more sanctions, others, like Chuck Schumer, have been either ominously silent or indicating, like Hoyer, that they want no part of this fight. This is troubling not just because the argument for more sanctions is solid but because the defection of significant Democratic support will transform the issue into just one more partisan battle with Republicans rather than a reflection of a bipartisan consensus.

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Prior to the signing of the nuclear deal with Iran, Congress seemed set to raise the pressure on Tehran with a new round of sanctions that will make it even tougher for the rogue regime to sell its oil. But in the weeks since Secretary of State John Kerry announced what he has claimed is a deal that is making both Israel and the United States safer, momentum for measures that would actually strengthen his hand in the follow-up negotiations has slipped. The administration’s pleas to hold off on sanctions make no sense since what created any sort of a window for diplomacy were the sanctions Congress already passed over the fierce objections of the White House and the State Department. Making them stricter to create a genuine embargo on Iranian oil (sales of which went up in November in part as a result of the sense that sanctions are on the way out after the deal) would be a perfect companion to talks. But while few in Congress seem to accept the logic of the arguments made by both Kerry and President Obama against sanctions, the number of those willing to directly challenge them on the issue seems to be dwindling, especially on the Democratic side of the aisle.

The latest evidence of this trend is the announcement today that House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer will not back an effort by Majority Leader Eric Cantor to create a nonbinding resolution calling for sterner measures against Iran. Up until this point, the Democrat had been as ardent an advocate of sanctions as any member, but his decision seems to illustrate that he has drunk the administration’s Kool-Aid on Iran. By saying “the time is not right” for even an expression of support for more sanctions (the Senate is now considering the tough sanctions already passed by the House), Hoyer had adopted the same wait-and-see approach Kerry and his aides have been selling on Capitol Hill. While some prominent Democrats, like Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez, have stuck to their guns on the need for more sanctions, others, like Chuck Schumer, have been either ominously silent or indicating, like Hoyer, that they want no part of this fight. This is troubling not just because the argument for more sanctions is solid but because the defection of significant Democratic support will transform the issue into just one more partisan battle with Republicans rather than a reflection of a bipartisan consensus.

While some senators such as John McCain are still pushing hard for a bill that would authorize the next round of sanctions, the discussion appears to be shifting away from that possibility to vague promises from the Senate leadership about considering a new bill only once it has been proved that Kerry’s diplomatic gambit has collapsed. The problems with such statements, such as the one coming out of the Banking Committee led by Democrat Tim Johnson and Republican Mike Crapo, is that they appear to be depending on the administration for an admission of failure that will never be forthcoming no matter what the Iranians do.

With support ebbing for a direct challenge to the administration, the idea of conditional measures that would put more sanctions into effect if Iran violates Kerry’s deal or the follow-up negotiations stall seems like an attractive alternative to many senators, especially those, like Schumer, who like to keep their image as stalwart friends of Israel and opponents of Iran intact.

But judging such violations or even the failure of the talks is bound to be subjective. This administration is not only heading in the direction of détente with Iran, it is also clearly besotted with the idea of diplomacy with the ayatollahs in principle. Expecting it to be honest about Iranian violations of a freeze of its efforts to enrich uranium at weapons-grade levels (even while the deal grants absolution to low-level enrichment, the product of which could be quickly converted to weapons-grade level in a nuclear breakout) is a stretch. But it is even more of a stretch given the fact that there is no way to know just how effective inspections of Iranian facilities will be and the consensus among intelligence agencies that Tehran has other secret installations at its disposal.

If the president and Kerry think even the talk about imposing more sanctions only after the six-month interim period envisaged in the deal would be a sign of “bad faith” on the part of the United States, what are the odds that they will risk telling the truth about Iranian behavior if it meant that such honesty would mean the end of their treasured diplomatic endeavor?

Even so, Johnson seems determined to protect the administration from any measure that would, even in theory, limit their ability to go on talking to Iran, no matter what the Iranians do. As such, he seems to be indicating that the principle of “Western unity” against more sanctions as well as political ties to the president trump doing the right thing to hold the Islamist regime accountable. While some senators may go on fighting, right now it appears the Iranians have nothing to worry about. So long as the president is willing to treat support for more sanctions as an act of betrayal against the White House, Iran can be assured that there will be no more pressure on them to give up their nuclear dreams.

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Reid, WH Work to Weaken Iran Sanctions

The Obama administration has been bragging about the strength of the international coalition it has assembled against Iran and the “crippling sanctions” it has imposed on the Islamist regime. But the dirty little secret about the sanctions is they are riddled with loopholes. Not only has the Treasury Department issued thousands of exemptions to companies that wish to do business with Iran, but President Obama has also specifically granted permission to China and India to go on importing oil from it. Though the sanctions have caused pain to the ordinary Iranian, the government is still raking in more cash from oil sales than it did a decade ago before the sanctions took effect.

This gives some important context to the debate going on in Congress right now about the imposition of a new sanctions bill that takes aim at insurance companies that underwrite Iranian investments. The legislation is vital if a major loophole is to be closed that will make it even more difficult for Iran to conduct commerce. But lobbying from insurance companies that don’t wish to have their businesses impeded are working against the bill. Even more seriously, as the Washington Free Beacon reports, they’ve got Majority Leader Harry Reid on their side.

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The Obama administration has been bragging about the strength of the international coalition it has assembled against Iran and the “crippling sanctions” it has imposed on the Islamist regime. But the dirty little secret about the sanctions is they are riddled with loopholes. Not only has the Treasury Department issued thousands of exemptions to companies that wish to do business with Iran, but President Obama has also specifically granted permission to China and India to go on importing oil from it. Though the sanctions have caused pain to the ordinary Iranian, the government is still raking in more cash from oil sales than it did a decade ago before the sanctions took effect.

This gives some important context to the debate going on in Congress right now about the imposition of a new sanctions bill that takes aim at insurance companies that underwrite Iranian investments. The legislation is vital if a major loophole is to be closed that will make it even more difficult for Iran to conduct commerce. But lobbying from insurance companies that don’t wish to have their businesses impeded are working against the bill. Even more seriously, as the Washington Free Beacon reports, they’ve got Majority Leader Harry Reid on their side.

Though the sanctions legislation is working its way through the House of Representatives, Reid and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) are doing their best to weaken the bill to please insurance companies that are major donors to their campaigns. Combined with the continued reluctance of the Obama administration — which fought the sanctions that they now boast of to supporters of Israel — the odds of the legislation getting through both houses without being completely watered down are not good.

While previous sanctions bills that limited the ability of Iran’s national bank to do business abroad were able to overcome the administration’s efforts to stop it, the additional burden of having to deal with the influence of the insurance industry may be too much to beat. Reid and Johnson have actually already stopped a previous sanctions bill from including insurance companies. As the WFB’s Adam Kredo notes, insurance lobbyists may even be able to count on some House Republicans to strip the bill of its teeth despite the support of the GOP leadership for the legislation.

Insurance companies are able to work on the sympathy of members of Congress not only because of their campaign donations but because they can claim they and their employees and investors will be hurt by the sanctions. That may be true, but if the embargo on Iran is not airtight, the attempt to convince Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions is hopeless. It may already be too late for sanctions to work, but isolating the terrorist-sponsoring Islamist state is a vital U.S. national interest. For the White House and leading members of the Senate to sabotage this measure while still claiming they are serious about Iran is not just hypocritical. It’s a sign the Democrats are talking out of both sides of their mouths on this issue.

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