Why the Iran sanctions fight is a big deal

President Barack Obama delivered a bold and blunt message during his State of the Union address to members of Congress looking to hang new sanctions over Iran’s head: Keep. Out.

It’s a message world leaders and diplomats working with the U.S. to wrangle Iran into relinquishing its nuclear weapons program have echoed.

But none of that is stopping sanctions advocates in the Senate, who will mark up their latest piece of legislation in committee this week, bringing the bill one step closer to action on the Senate floor.

And as negotiators rebooted talks with Iran in Geneva, Sen. Robert Menendez, the lead Democratic sponsor of the sanctions bill, accused the White House of peddling talking points “straight out of Tehran.”

Throw Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming visit into the mix, a couple veto threats, and you’ve got a bona fide Washington showdown.

Why does this all sound so familiar?

Because it is. Congressional Republicans and a dozen Democrats, bolstered by the powerhouse pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, faced off against the White House and dozens of pro-peace groups last year when they tried passing the a sanctions bill.

The bill earned on-the-record support from 60 senators — just enough to override a filibuster — but the bill never got a vote after the White House issued a veto threat and went on a lobbying spree urging Democrats to oppose it.

What’s different now?

The November midterm election changed the dynamics — Republicans snagged the Senate majority and Iran sanctions were suddenly back on the table, handing advocates a pretty easy path to 60 votes and even a chance of reaching a veto-proof majority.

Menendez and his Republican counterpart, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, got to work on changing their bill to make it more palatable to Democrats. Obama, though, rushed to issue a new veto threat even before the new draft legislation even went public.

How did they change the bill, and why does Obama still hate it?

Last year’s bill would have crashed right onto the negotiating table where Iran and delegations from six countries were haggling over its nuclear program, immediately dropping new sanctions on Iran and likely killing the talks.

Senate staffers and their bosses have stripped away the most divisive provisions, though stronger language could always get added to the new, watered-down bill as it winds its way through the legislative process.

But even in its current form, Obama is urging Congress to stand down. Negotiators argue any measure from Congress would threaten to unravel the fragile international coalition they believe is the world’s best shot at peacefully ending Iran’s nuclear program. The Iranians could feel like threatened or bullied by sanctions legislation, prompting them to ditch the negotiating table. And then, they can blame the U.S. Congress for undoing a potential deal — a blame game many countries would buy.

Obama also counters that If talks break down, he will swiftly impose new sanctions on Iran — sanctions he could quickly get Congress to vote and pass. World leaders are also siding with Obama — British Prime Minister David Cameron even pounded out phone calls to a slew of senators during his trip to Washington last week, in an unusual move from a foreign leader.

What’s Congress’ deal? Why are they pushing sanctions?

Even though there haven’t been any new sanctions, Iran is already under increased economic strain as oil prices have plummeted in recent months and no one is expecting them to rise anytime soon. But the sanctions sticklers say the threat of new sanctions will pin Iran against a wall and force them to deal in good faith.

The Iranian economy is still struggling, but has been making strides, experiencing some economic growth and lowering inflation after facing a recession. While the Obama administration had argued that sanctions relief would have a minimal impact, the IMF assessed in its 2014 report that the sanctions relief helped Iran stabilize its oil exports and gain access to funds held abroad.

Kirk and Menendez say they want to strengthen the hand of negotiators and promise that the threat of new sanctions will do just that.

Sanctions got the Iranians to the negotiating table in the first place and Iran’s only going to agree to a deal that actually rolls back its nuclear program for good if it’s under serious pressure, they argue.

Sounds logical. But is there another side to this?

The pro-sanction side had also been accused of having no faith in a negotiated solution and pushing the U.S. to the brink of war by sabotaging negotiations. While leading advocates like Kirk, Menendez and Democratic heavyweight Sen. Chuck Schumer refute those claims, others don’t shy away from that characterization.

Freshman Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, a member of the intelligence and armed services committees, boldly stated this month that the goal of a sanctions bill was to kill the negotiations he believes are leading nowhere.

“The end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of congressional action. It is very much an intended consequence — a feature, not a bug,” Cotton said, calling for “immediate” and “crippling” sanctions.

Sounds familiar …

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also argued that a negotiated solution with Iran is impossible. He accepted congressional Republicans’ invitation to address Congress this spring over the Iranian threat.

That sent the White House into a topspin: Netanyahu not only scheduled a speech to Congress that is expected to fly in the face of Obama’s diplomatic efforts, but the announcement of Netanyahu’s speech also came without any prior outreach to the White House.

So what happens if talks actually collapse?

If talks fall apart, the U.S. and the international community would lose the access it’s gained to monitor most of Iran’s nuclear facilities and Iran would no longer be constrained to a uranium enrichment threshold, as it has under the terms of the current negotiations.

That’s why many argue that even if negotiations don’t result in a deal, the status quo is better than the alternative. Failed talks would send Iran’s nuclear program underground, so to speak, and sound alarm bells in Israel, the U.S. and other Western countries.

Israel has already made clear it’s willing to do anything it takes to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and promised to act unilaterally if necessary.

Obama has insisted the U.S. would not be on an “immediate war footing” if negotiations fail, but he and other U.S. leaders have said nuclear Iran isn’t an option.

And Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors also won’t stand idly by if their top geopolitical foe works to attain a nuclear bomb.

So the stakes are pretty high. Are there any alternatives?

A couple. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is crafting a bill that would give Congress oversight power over an eventual agreement with Iran. Some in the Senate are starting to view it as an alternative to the sanctions bill. While Corker’s proposal hasn’t faced the same forceful opposition from the White House, the Obama administration would rather have Congress as far away as possible from the sensitive negotiations.

Also in the works: an alternative sanctions bill being crafted by Sen. Barbara Boxer, a leading progressive, and conservative Sen. Rand Paul, which could be the only bill ultimately endorsed by the White House.

It’s unlikely Boxer, who has consistently opposed sanctions efforts, would push a bill the White House isn’t on board with.

Drafts of those two bills have yet to go public, but the Corker effort in particular is starting to draw support and could split Republicans looking to bolster the negotiations.

So what’s the next step?

The Senate Banking Committee is holding a hearing on Tuesday and then will review the Kirk-Menendez sanctions measure on Thursday.

But this is one fight that will push on for weeks — with no clear outcome in sight.

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