This post provides timely and explicit details of how the sanctions debate in the States links to Iran’s nuclear progress. With the controversy over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to the United States to speak on Capitol Hill about Iran sanctions, the post relates to the considerable interest in this topic in both Jerusalem and Washington.
First published in Foreign Policy
"Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”
-Otto von Bismarck
Bismarck’s statement is eerily familiar with the legislative process described below. Stay with me while I dive deeply into the process as a first step in making the case why this moment is such a big deal.
The draft Kirk-Menendez bill was published Friday, Jan. 23, and introduced in the Senate on Jan. 27. Officially it is the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015 but dubbed for names of its main sponsors — Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ). It is a diplomatic insurance policy imposing conditional sanctions against the risk that Tehran fails to negotiate in good faith by June 30, 2015.
A strong supporter of Kirk-Menendez is Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). During Q&A at a Senate Banking Committee hearing on Iran on Jan. 27, 2015, he said, “We don’t just sit around shooting the breeze [on Capitol Hill]: We vote.” At issue is when such a vote might occur. Corker was ready to move the bill to a series of procedures and vote as soon as possible but realized he needs to hold the Democrats in the coalition; so there is a short delay.
Still, there is little consensus on a timetable between the Congress and the Executive branch. Senators like Corker consider March 24 as the date there should be a deal, to be worked on by technical experts until the official signing by June 30. But consider the words of Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken on Jan. 27 and State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki at a briefing on the same day; both stated by “end of March” for the political agreement (and then June 30 to complete technical details).
Politico‘s Burgess Everett has looked into legislative mechanics. On Thursday, Jan. 29, the bill is to proceed for “markup,” (congressional committees debate, amend, and rewrite proposed legislation) in the Banking Committee. Everett considered a letter Democrats in the Senate sent to the president as vindication against an immediate vote sought by Republicans; but my take is that it is also a statement of the bipartisan consensus in support of Kirk-Menendez. The bill was officially introduced with 16 original cosponsors — nine Republicans and seven Democrats. Now add three more Democrats who are not signatories but cosponsored the bill in the preceding congress. According to Kristina Wong in The Hill, there would be somewhere between 62 and 65 Senators in support, close to 67 needed for an override of a presidential veto — 52 Republicans, 13 Democrats.
Now to the big deal: An 18 to 4 vote in the Senate Banking Committee reflected bipartisanship for a tougher diplomacy toward Iran. Despite a two-week full court press by the administration to peel away Democrats, a bipartisan consensus held and is even stronger on Capitol Hill. It may portend a bullet-proof margin for the Kirk-Menendez conditional sanctions on Iran.
So, the president may not have enough votes in the Senate to sustain a threatened veto contained in his State of the Union address: “New sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails — alienating America from its allies; making it harder to maintain sanctions; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again. It doesn’t make sense. And that’s why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress.”
President Obama’s State of the Union also states, “Our diplomacy is at work with respect to Iran, where, for the first time in a decade, we’ve halted the progress of its nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material.” In fact, however, Washington has slowed but not halted the nuclear progress of Tehran.
Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post fact checked the veracity (but not mendacity) of politicians’ statements. For making sweeping claims for which there is little basis in his State of the Union, Kessler awards the President three Pinocchios.
Kessler also quotes Olli Heinonen now at Harvard. He ran the International Atomic Energy (IAEA) safeguards section during the 2003 to 2005 talks between Iran and three European powers (France, Germany, and Britain). Heinonen told Kessler, “It is true that 20-percent enriched uranium stocks have decreased, but Iran is still producing uranium enriched up to 5-percent uranium. The latter stocks have actually increased when you talk about stocks of UF6 [uranium hexafluoride] and other chemical compounds.”
In the nuclear fuel cycle, “hex” or UF6 is gas suitable for use in enrichment operations, for example, to enrich gas to bomb-making levels of about 90 percent. It is more difficult to enrich from zero to 20 percent than to enrich from 20 to 90. So having even small amounts of “hex” is an avenue to bomb-making fuel.
In a related vein, David Albright and colleagues at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) state, “Despite the fact that Iran no longer has a stock of near 20 percent low enriched uranium (LEU) in hexafluoride form, it retains a significant portion of this material in the form of oxide. Under the July 2014 extension of the interim deal of the Joint Plan of Action, Iran pledged to convert 25 kilograms of LEU oxide into fuel assemblies for the Tehran Research Reactor.” A large quantity of this LEU is recoverable and usable in fuel or in a breakout to nuclear weapons.
Moreover, Mark Hibbs, an expert in conversion and contributor to Arms Control Wonk, states, “Iran could process its entire inventory of 20-percent-enriched U3O8 to produce UF6 in a matter of a few weeks,” much less time for breakout than the Obama administration’s goal of a minimum of 12 months. Indeed, enrichment up to 3.5 percent purity is roughly 60 percent of what is needed to enrich further for weapons-grade uranium. Enriched uranium in oxide form, moreover, can be prepared for further enrichment in about two weeks.
The above comments are from a specialist who headed an important section of the IAEA (Heinonen), a former IAEA nuclear weapons inspector (Albright), and an expert in conversion (Hibbs). They are independents with no axe to grind in the dispute between Capitol Hill and the Executive branch about Iran’s nuclear progress.
Coming into the Oval Office, President Obama expressed a preference for bipartisanship but has recently transitioned to a more partisan approach to governing. Republicans have done their part, mostly for good reasons, in pushing him toward partisanship. That said, however, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015 (Kirk-Menendez bill) offers a humongous chance to revert to his original professed inclination toward bipartisanship.
Many Republicans consider his stated preference for bipartisanship to be fake posturing. On one hand, this Republican believes the mantra of changing Washington was genuine. On the other hand, I am critical of the president’s being more concerned with how Iran would interpret any new sanctions than with how his congressional allies are advocating conditional sanctions that do not begin immediately.
With the oil price drop, effects of current sanctions, and overextended Iranian involvement in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinian territories, President Obama’s negotiating hand is much stronger than the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s. Hence, the moment is ripe for reversion to professed bipartisanship by seizing the moment offered by his allies on Capitol Hill. If not now, when? Now is the time to lead the congressional consensus against Iran’s developing the bomb. Now is the time for a ceasefire in the war for Washington over sanctions against Tehran and its march toward becoming a threshold nuclear weapon state.
This post has been updated to reflect the outcome of Thursday’s vote.