Last week, the banking committee at US Senate approved a new legislation against Iran that aims to "toughen sanctions" on Iran unless Iran agrees to the severe terms mentioned in the bill. The bi-partisan 'Kirk-Mendez' bill named after its sponsors is titled 'Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013' and has been defended as a "measure to put pressure on Iran."
But its real purpose appears to be to pressure the Obama administration away from signing a final nuclear deal that would be considered a "bad deal" that falls short of the maximalist demands of the hawkish lawmakers; in his state of union speech, Obama vowed to veto this bill and argued that because of ongoing negotiations the time was not ripe for it.
As a result, the stage is now set for a potential showdown between the White House and the Congress, in light of Senate's control by the Republican Party and their likely ability to muster enough support from the Democrats to achieve the 67 votes needed to override a presidential veto.
For now, however, the bill's sponsors have decided to hold off a full Senate vote until after March 24th, the deadline set by the extension of the interim Geneva "Joint Plan of Action" to reach a "political agreement" prior to a final agreement by July 1, 2015.
Iran's reaction to this latest Congressional move has been expressed by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who has warned that any new US sanctions will "unravel" the nuclear talks. This sentiment is shared by the European negotiators, who voiced their serious misgivings about this bill in an opinion article, calling for a congressional restraint while the negotiations are ongoing.
By all accounts, this bill's real intention is to torpedo the nuclear talks and thwart diplomacy under the guise of "bolstering" US diplomacy at the table. It has been questioned by various US editorials as a "bad policy" that should be avoided -- for good reasons since if adopted and survives a White House veto, this bill not only damages the prospects for a 'win-win' resolution of the Iran nuclear standoff, it will also harm US's own interests. Briefly, there are several flaws in it that deserve attention. These are:
1. The bill violates the terms of the Geneva agreement: Under this agreement, both US and Europe have pledged to refrain from imposing new sanctions on Iran during the period of the agreement. Therefore, the March ultimatum given by the bill's sponsors represents a clear negation of US's pledge;
2. The bill imposes the arbitrary demand for the "dismantling" of Iran's uranium enrichment and heavy water production facility in Arak. There is absolutely no legal basis for this demand and is contrary to the terms of the Geneva agreement that acknowledges Iran's right to enrich uranium, albeit under the agreed-upon scope of its "practical needs." With respect to the Arak reactor, both sides have made substantial progress in terms of certain modifications that would address the concerns about it, given the importance of the reactor for Iran's medical and other civilian needs. Iran has pledged not to set up a reprocessing plant, without which it is impossible to separate plutonium (for weapons purposes).
3. The bill asks the president to certify that Iran does not conduct any missile tests beyond the range of 500 kilometers. This demand, with respect to Iran's conventional military power and technology, is also without any legal foundation and arbitrary, aiming to dispossess Iran of an important arsenal of its national defense.
4. The bill calls for tough penalties on countries that refuse to substantially reduce their oil imports from Iran. This means that China, India, and other countries that are Iran's energy partners, will find themselves in the unwanted situation of a third party, namely the US, dictating their energy policies. Without doubt, this would cause tensions between US and those countries, which might retaliate against the US if subjected to such aggressive bullying by their American trade partners.
5. The bill sets up various scenarios for US's unilateral violation of a final agreement, including acts of terrorism against the US by Iran or Iran's 'proxies'. As a result, the bar has been set very low, e.g., an attack attributed (rightly or wrongly) to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which is close to Iran, would suffice to lead the US to declare the final agreement null and void.
6. The bill's call for the re-imposition of Iran sanctions in the event of a unilateral decision by the US that Iran has violated the long list of prohibited activities mentioned in the bill is also arbitrary and unmindful of the likely provisions of the final agreement, similar to the interim agreement, regarding a 'joint commission' to deal with the issues of implementation. In other words, any unilateral US decision permitted under this bill would put the US at odds with the other nations in the "5 +1" group, i.e., US, France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany. Unfortunately, the hawkish US politicians are lagging behind the reality and ignorant of the structural limits imposed on US unilateralism by the multilateral framework.
7. The bill explicitly calls for a "US support" for Israel in case the Zionist entity launches a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. This is highly irresponsible, and dangerous, on the part of US lawmakers, who ought to know better the importance of abiding by international law and UN Charter, which expressly forbids unprovoked attacks against another country. Even if the nuclear talks fail, no country has the right to attack Iran, which will be deemed by the international community as a condemnable transgression of international law. Even the US's own intelligence community has confirmed that Iran's nuclear program is peaceful, not to mention repeated such confirmations by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as a result of which an illegal and unprovoked attack on Iran would, logically speaking, trigger UN Security Council condemnation under Chapter VII, pertaining to international peace and security. In the event that the US would scuttle action at the Security Council, such a move would only isolate the US in the international community and project a 'rogue' image that would be contrary to US's own national interests. This is not to mention Iran's retaliation against any such attacks and the profound unwanted regional and global implications (such as on world economy) triggered in a war scenario -- that has been toyed with in the US Congress through this proposed legislation.
The above-mentioned serious flaw of this bill ought to be pondered on by the members of US Congress before they make a historical mistake of approving it and thus take a giant leap backward, by trying to hijack the sensitive Iran nuclear negotiations through an unwise and untimely bill that, as stated above, aims to prevent a mutually-satisfactory final agreement, by catering to the demands of the Israeli government, which is wary of the 'day after' the deal, when all eyes would turn to Israel's clandestine nuclear arsenal and its relentless deflection of a viable Middle East peace process by its relentless Iranophobia.