Posted by Albert Gersh - December 19, 2013
- Details of bipartisan Senate push on Iran sanctions crystallize, after initial confused reporting
- Iran threats to quickly restart advanced enrichment reignite concerns over Geneva deal asymmetries
- White House position against sanctions again under scrutiny as showdown looms
- Hamas rejects reports that credibility crisis is forcing group into Palestinian unity government
What we’re watching today:
- Journalists and analysts today scrambled to clarify the details of Senate legislation - first leaked Wednesday night but formally introduced only mid-Thursday - that would heighten sanctions on Iran if it violated the terms of the recently signed Joint Plan of Action (JPA) during an upcoming six month negotiation period, or if it did not agree by the end of that period to put its nuclear program beyond use for weaponization. Initial media accounts of the legislation's language were confused. The law's wording was first leaked as part of a generally unfavorable article posted Wednesday night to Foreign Policy magazine's The Cable blog, but that account was marked - per a quickly-posted correction - by "several factual errors," including an implication that the bill "authorize[d] military force against Iran." Early speculation also had the law immediately implementing sanctions against Iran and thus violating the JPA, a reading that turned out to be flatly wrong. The bipartisan group of twenty-six Senators co-sponsoring the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 - thirteen Democrats and thirteen Republican - formally unveiled the bill Thursday afternoon. A subsequent release quoted Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) describing the legislation, which would require 'further reductions in purchases of Iranian petroleum and... additional penalties to strategic elements of the Iranian economy,' as "an insurance policy to defend against Iranian deception during negotiations." The same release quoted Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) emphasizing that "current sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and a credible threat of future sanctions will require Iran to cooperate and act in good faith at the negotiating table." The White House today explicitly threatened to veto the legislation should it come to President Barack Obama's desk.
- Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif boasted yesterday that Iran could resume enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity in less than a day, the latest in a string of statements from top Iranian officials that risk deepening concerns not just about the Islamic republic's broad intentions but more specifically about the asymmetrical structure of the recently announced Joint Plan of Action (JPA). The JPA requires Iran to at most freeze parts of its program but mandates that the United States and its alliens reduce financial sanctions. It positions Tehran to irreversibly pocket billions in relief even as it maintains the ability to restart its atomic program from where it was partially frozen, and at any time. Zarif's comments are likely to punctuate concerns over the lopsided structure. Meanwhile reports emerged yesterday that Mohammadreza Bahonar - a prominent Iranian lawmaker who had previously been cited by the Washington Post as a conservative supporter of negotiations - recently floated the possibility that I ran may pursue not just 20% but 60% enrichment should talks break down.
- A potential showdown between the White House and Congress over sanctions on Iran is refocusing attention on tensions within the Obama administration's opposition to imposing new financial pressure on the Islamic republic. Journalists and analysts had very early begun to question the White House's stance that while past sanctions had coerced the Iranians into coming to the negotiating table by endangering the country's economy, new sanctions would push them away. Associated Press reporter Matthew Lee had pressed State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki on the point in late October, asking at a daily press conference "wouldn't it be logical that once you've got them to the table, adding more pressure would help and would make them more willing to compromise." December analysis published by Mark Dubowitz, executive director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), evaluated that Iran badly needs the financial relief offered by the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) signed in Geneva, the upshot being that Iranian threats to walk away from the table were bluffs. The Treasury Department subsequently did issue new designations against entities suspected of violating sanctions against Iran. In response the Iranians left but then returned to talks. Politico tonight published analysis by Jonathan Schanzer, FDD vice president for research, assessing that the temporary Iranian departure was a "poorly played bluff," that Tehran is "desperate for the sanctions relief the JPA is slated to provide," and that the White House may therefore have trouble convincing lawmakers that Congressional moves to pass delayed sanctions are sufficient to derail negotiations.
- Hamas spokesman Salah Al-Bardaweel yesterday shot down rumors that the Palestinian terror group had reached a deal with the rival Fatah faction on creating a single government that would govern both the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and Fatah-controlled areas of the West Bank. Hamas's stature has been in free-fall both domestically and regionally. A week of fighting against Israel in November 2012, which came after months in which Hamas had escalated the amount and sophistication of its attacks on the Jewish state, saw the Palestinian group's command and control infrastructure severely degraded. The fall of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-linked government in the summer of 2013 further eroded Hamas's position, and the Egyptian military subsequently moved to cut off the Gaza-Sinai Peninsula smuggling tunnels that had for years served as Hamas's economic lifeline. There had been speculation that Hamas's isolation had caused the group to soften its traditional demands for reconciliation with Fatah, several years after Hamas fighters violently expelled its rival's officials from the Gaza Strip and seized control of the territory. Al-Bardaweel, however, declared that the rumors were "false remarks", and that it was "not right" to assert that his organization had accepted "the formation of a national unity government... because of the severe crises that has resulted from the siege." That the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are ruled by separate Palestinian factions has complicated hopes for the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Both territories are claimed by Palestinian officials as areas they reserve for a single future country, but a state in which territory is divided between competing governments is almost by definition a failed state.
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