July 14, 2024
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July 14, 2024
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Congress and Obama Face-Off on Iran Sanctions

Which members of the President’ administration are to be believed? The anonymous senior official reported by the New York Times on Sunday as stating, “The White House has made one significant decision: if agreement is reached, President Obama will do everything in his power to avoid letting Congress vote on it”–or those who seem to be denying that and sound like they all read the same talking points? Congress was particularly concerned about lifting sanctions that had begun taking effect, when the story broke.

According to the Times, the White House source said the administration, “…wouldn’t seek congressional legislation in any comprehensive agreement for years.” He was referring to the ongoing negotiations to reach a deal with Iran that would slow down its nuclear weapons program, curtailing enrichment and the number of centrifuges they can have. Iran has notoriously prevented UN personnel from inspecting a site where nuclear research and detonation devices were being designed and manufactured, along with missiles and centrifuges…a site that mysteriously blew sky high a few weeks ago.

Speaking for the President, Bernadette M. Meehan of the National Security Council told JLBC, “The New York Times story is incorrect on many levels.” She said the President is not attempting to reduce sanctions against Iran,” and she referenced White House and State Department briefings in the last week to see the on-the-record push back to “this erroneous reporting.”

At a White House press conference on Monday, Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz used practically the same words. He said the story was wrong on “when and how congressional action will be needed to suspend and/or lift the sanctions, and whether we believe they should take up an up or down vote on the deal. The notion that we are trying to avoid congressional consultation and input on this is preposterous. This is an issue where we talk to Congress intensively. We will continue to consult with Congress heavily.”

However, he also confirmed that Congress won’t be included in every decision. “It’s way too early to speculate on which sanctions will require legislative versus executive action to suspend or lift. So I’m not going to get ahead of that from here, today, while the negotiations are ongoing…If we do get a comprehensive arrangement, it is absolutely true that the sanctions regime we have in place cannot be undone without congressional action.”

At the State Department briefing on Monday, Marie Harf, Deputy Spokesperson, said the Times’ headline, “was not correct; it was wrong. The Administration believes Congress has a very important role to play on Iran’s nuclear issue.”

Then attempting to clear things up she said, “The story conflated two separate issues, when and how congressional action will be needed to suspend and/or lift. So when we say ‘suspend,’ we ‘suspend,’ we mean suspend temporarily; lift–you could say also ‘terminate.’ You can use those words interchangeably–and whether we believe they should take an up-or-down vote on the deal. So the story really conflated those two ideas. They’re really separate.

“On sanctions, we have made absolutely clear publicly in testimony and in private discussions on the Hill that in the first instance, we would look to suspend sanctions, and then–only if and after Iran has upheld its end of the arrangement–we would look to lift or terminate sanctions. This is for a very good policy reason that the Hill, I think, agrees with: that suspension makes it easier to snap back the sanctions into place if the deal isn’t upheld.

“It’s obviously way too early, I think, to speculate on which sanctions would require legislative versus executive action to suspend or to lift. But suffice it to say, if we get a comprehensive agreement, it is absolutely true that the sanctions regime we put in place cannot be undone without congressional action. Now what–which requires congressional action and which requires executive action, it’s too early to tell… There are many, many sanctions on the books. But the notion that we are somehow trying to avoid congressional input and consultation is, I think, just preposterous. This is probably the topic that we have talked to, and consulted with Congress more than on any other issue since I’ve been here.”

Responding to JLBC inquiries about unilateral action by the Administration on sanctions, local members of Congress were vocal.

Sen. Robert Menendez, (D NJ) Chairman of the US Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations, repeated his statement from the Times article, “If a potential deal does not substantially and effectively dismantle Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program, I expect Congress will respond. An agreement cannot allow Iran to be a threshold nuclear state.”

Fifth District Congressman Scott Garrett told JLBC, “President Obama is again trailing from behind when it comes to a nuclear Iran. His strategy has put the United States and our greatest ally in the Middle East, Israel, in a very dangerous position. President Obama needs to answer bipartisan calls for stronger sanctions on Iran. He needs to put pressure on Iran so that Iran grants full access to the IAEA so it can inspect all of Iran’s facilities. Unlike past precedent, it’s time that President Obama take the November 24th deadline seriously to ensure our safety and the safety of our allies.”

However little to nothing has been asked or said about the relationship of decisions being made in light of the mysterious explosion in Parchin, the site mentioned above, and its effect on negotiations.

One reason may be that a report by the nonprofit, non-governmental agency, Institute for Science and International Security (with the unfortunate acronym of ISIS,) referenced independently obtained satellite footage stating that, “There is no evidence of nuclear weapon-related activities at this specific site, as previously reported by other sources. These reports may have confused this site with another site at the Parchin military complex where alleged high explosive nuclear weapons-related activities occurred prior to 2004. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has asked to visit this site based upon information it received from member states and its interviews with a former Soviet nuclear weapons expert linked to this site. Iran has so far refused to allow the visit and in the meantime [has] undertaken extensive building and site modifications that complicate the IAEA’s verification responsibilities under the Iran/IAE comprehensive safeguards agreement.”

Their conclusion, “As long as Iran refuses to allow the IAEA to visit this site, Iran will also complicate the achievement of a long-term nuclear agreement under the Joint Plan of Action.”

Those other sources, such as Reuters, stated that the blast was a chemical explosion, that two people were killed, one a nuclear expert “confirming suspicions that it was not a simple accident.”

According to the Iranian state-run Fars News Agency, it was an ammunition explosion caused by a private company, “Hamana,” that had a contract to manage and transport dangerous materials in and out of the base. Because Hamana’s trucks are controlled in part by an online system, there was suspicion that these trucks could be remotely controlled.

Israel’s Channel 10 reported “the area most heavily hit by explosion damage in the base is a site run by Parchin Chemical Industries (PCI), which is managed by DIO and is subject to UN and US sanctions for producing ammunition and solid propellants for ballistic missile fuel.”

Reuter’s also stated, “It is possible that the chemical storage sites destroyed in the blast also contained radioactive materials left over from the fuse tests conducted secretly at the base as part of a nuclear weapons program–Iran has already admitted to testing exploding bridge wire nuclear detonation devices at Parchin.

“If so, the report adds that sensors placed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or intelligence services should be able to locate radioactive particulates at the site due to the blast, and thereby obtain concrete evidence of nuclear weapon tests at the facility.”

That Iran has never been forthcoming and has refused IAEA inspections since 2005 has only fueled suspicions and more speculation, especially in Israel, where according to the Jerusalem Post, Israel’s Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz stated last month, that Iran used its Parchin military base for secret tests of technology that could be used only for detonating a nuclear weapon. However that testing occurred 14 years ago.

This was both backed up and contradicted by the IAEA report in 2011, which indicated that “Iran may have conducted such alleged experiments but did not specify where they had taken place.”

Said Steinitz, “It is important to emphasize that these kinds of tests can have no ‘dual use’ explanation, since the only possible purpose of such internal neutron sources is to ignite the nuclear chain reaction in nuclear weapons.” But the technology can be applied to producing either civilian nuclear energy or bombs.

Whatever is happening, Israel has not been part of negotiations that will determine Iran’s ability to send nuclear missiles its way. “The Jewish State has been a severe critic of six big powers’ negotiations with Iran on restraining its nuclear program, suspecting Tehran is only trying to buy time to master sensitive nuclear know-how and would evade the terms of any final deal.”

Speculation has been put forth that such a delaying tactic has been also used by the Obama Administration so that a decision will be needed immediately and hence there seems to be a necessity to cut Congress out of the loop.

That President Obama has kept his own council on negotiations with Iran is no secret. As one reporter asked Press Secretary Josh Earnest last month about pursuing a “handshake on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly” with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

The handshake had been explained away as the first time that a President of the United States and a President of Iran had engaged in a conversation in about 40 years.

But back channel communications have also been occurring concerning the war against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, yet there have been only vague responses about “shared interests” no other indication of what those talks are precisely about.

Almost a month ago, reporters asked Press Secretary Earnest about the administration considering a new approach with the nuclear talks that would allow the Iran to keep about half of the centrifuges they have but reduce their stockpile of nuclear fuel.

While not confirming or denying, Earnest said, “These are conversations that have been going on for quite some time. This is the United States acting in concert with our P5+1 partners to reach an agreement with Iran that would mitigate the broader international community’s concern about Iran’s nuclear program.”

Were these discussions a responsible means of dealing with Congress to ask them to approve agreements now and get the information later? Earnest said, “Yes it is. The reason is simply that the President believes it is a priority for the administration to be given the authority it needs.”

New York Congressman Eliot Engel, the leading Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs stated, “I disagree with the Administration’s reported assertion that it does not need to come to Congress at this point during negotiations with Iran.

“We don’t know if the negotiators will be able to reach a good deal. In the meantime, we must ensure that the United States is in the best position to use our leverage at every point in the negotiation process, and the current sanctions regime represents our most powerful leverage against Iran.

“I believe that the letter that Chairman Royce and I sent over the summer, along with over 300 colleagues, reflects the will of the Congress: Congress must play a role at the outset of any comprehensive agreement.”

The letter included signatures from New York Congresswoman Nita Lowy (D), and New Jersey Congressmen Garrett, Albio Sires and Bill Pascrell and referenced a July 20th deadline for a “comprehensive solution” which never materialized, postponed to November 24.

It urged that greater consultation with Congress on potential elements to a final agreement.

“Our two branches of government have long been partners in working to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. However, as these hugely consequential national security decisions are made, greater cooperation between Congress and the Executive Branch is essential, given that any permanent sanctions relief demands congressional approval.

“Your Administration has committed to comprehensively lifting ‘nuclear-related’ sanctions as part of a final P5+1 agreement with Tehran. Yet the concept of an exclusively defined ‘nuclear-related’ sanction on Iran does not exist in U.S. law. Almost all sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program are also related to Tehran’s advancing ballistic missile program, intensifying support for international terrorism, and other unconventional weapons programs. Similarly, many of these sanctions are aimed at preventing Iranian banks involved in proliferation, terrorism, money laundering and other activities from utilizing the U.S. and global financial systems to advance these destructive policies.”

By Anne Phyllis Pinzow

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