Thursday, January 16, 2014

Does Robert Gates know what's in Menendez-Kirk?

In interviews following the publication of his new book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, Robert Gates appears to oppose legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran.  But it's not entirely clear that he knows what's in the Menendez-Kirk bill that's currently been endorsed by 59 senators. Or rather, he does not direct his rather vague criticism at the actual provisions of that bill -- which, its proponents would argue, does exactly what Gates is calling for.

Gates told the Wall Street Journal*:
I think that the Senate's effort to pass additional sanctions now, that would become effective now, is a serious mistake, but unlike the administration, I would support the Senate, or Congress, voting additional sanctions, but that would be triggered only with the failure of the negotiations, so that it lets the Iranians know that if this negotiation doesn't work it's not just going back to the way things were at the beginning of the negotiations -- it will be worse for them.  So I think it strengthens the president's hand. We worry all the time about strengthening hardliners on the opposite side of the table. Maybe we oughtta tell the other side of the table that they oughtta worry about some of our hardliners (my transcript).
The summary of Menendez-Kirk circulated on Capitol Hill claims:
The bill does not violate the Joint Plan of Action.  New sanctions would only be imposed if Iran violates the interim agreement or does not reach a final agreement regarding its nuclear program.
The bill itself asserts (pp 5-6):
The imposition of sanctions under this Act, including sanctions on exports of petroleum from Iran, is triggered by violations by Iran of any interim or final agreement regarding its nuclear program, failure to reach a final agreement in a discernible time frame, or the breach of other conditions described in section 301

Some might argue that the mechanism in a sense imposes sanctions immediately, in that the president must certify that certain conditions are met to keep the sanctions suspended for 180 days (and on a monthly basis thereafter if negotiations are still in progress). But Gates does not get into the semantics of what it means to impose/suspend sanctions.  He doesn't address the actual  bill currently threatening to torpedo negotiations at all.

You could oppose Menendez-Kirk because you think that dangling the threat of new sanctions over the negotiations creates a coercive environment not conducive to negotiation. Or, you could support in principle the threat of new sanctions -- as Gates does -- but object that the bill conditions suspension of sanctions on Iran's total diplomatic surrender, demanding concessions that have not been on the table to date and that not only Iran but the United States' negotiating partners would reject. Edward Levine has proved beyond doubt that the Iranians not only would not but literally could not accede to the terms set forth in the bill.**

Menendez-Kirk is a ridiculous Netanyahu wish list, put forward by the Senate's chief AIPAC tools, designed to sabotage negotiations. But it does impose sanctions contingent on the failure of negotiations, as Gates calls for. If he objects to its specific provisions rather than its basic structure, he should say so.

* He said the much the same thing to WNYC's Brian Lehrer -- if anything, seemed even more pointedly unaware of what Menendez-Kirk purports to do:
I think that the effort of the Senate to pass sanctions that are effective now is a serious mistake, and I think could in fact derail the negotiations.  On the other hand I do disagree with the administration in this respect: I think that what might be useful would be for the Congress to pass significant additional sanctions on the Iranians, but that they will be triggered only with the failure of the negotiations. In other words it would be a sword hanging over their head that basically said, if these negotiations fail we're not just going back to where we were at the beginning of the negotiation. You will face even more stringent sanctions if these negotiations don't work (my transcript).
** Arguably too, according to Levine's logic followed rigorously, the president could not suspend the sanctions at all because Iran's current and past conduct make it impossible that certain conditions required for certification are met, e.g.,
(H) Iran has not directly, or through a proxy, supported, financed, planned, or otherwise carried out and act of terrorism against the United States or United States persons or property anywhere in the world;

(I) Iran has not conducted any tests for ballistic missiles with a range exceeding 500 kilometers (Sect. 301, pp 37-38).
Since Iran has done both of those things, the use of the perfect tense (past leading up to present moment) means that it could never comply with these conditions. More substantively, perhaps, the ballistic missile test requirement imposes an extraneous agenda on the negotiations.

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