WASHINGTON (JTA) — Cherry blossoms have withered off the trees, Easter eggs have rolled off the White House lawn and now it’s time for two more Washington springtime perennials: An Iran sanctions bill is about to roll off the congressional presses, and thousands of AIPAC lobbyists are about to tumble out of buses to make sure it passes.
Just in time for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual policy forum next week, U.S. Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) introduced a major new Iran sanctions bill. In addition to Kyl, Bayh and Lieberman, who caucuses with the Democrats, nine other Republicans and 11 Democrats signed on as co-sponsors, Capitol Hill sources said.
Similar legislation has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Reps. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and the House leadership is backing a bill that would facilitate divestment from Iran. The latter, modeled on a bill drafted by President Obama as a U.S. senator, is due for consideration this week by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The bills come just weeks after the Democratic House leadership wrote Obama that Iran’s nuclear potential "must be dealt with on an urgent basis."
They revive the failed effort by the last Congress to expand sanctions aimed at isolating Iran’s energy sector in a bid to have the Islamic Republic end its suspected nuclear weapons program. It targets shippers, bankers and insurers who deal with Iran’s energy sector.
"This will give the president a very powerful tool," Bayh, the bill’s lead drafter, said at a news conference Tuesday in the Senate, noting that its provisions would be subject to Obama’s authorization. "This is our best effort to do something" about Iran’s nuclear weapons potential "short of military force."
AIPAC strongly backed the bill, spokesman Josh Block said.
"If Iran doesn’t act rapidly to suspend its enrichment and other illicit nuclear work, the U.S. and our allies must be prepared to induce Iranian compliance by targeting Iran’s economic and structural vulnerabilities," he said in a statement. "This bill gives President Obama the tools to do just that.”
In a speech Sunday night in New York to members of the pro-Israel media watchdog CAMERA, Lieberman warned that the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran would pose a serious threat to Israel and Arab nations, and bolster the Islamic Republic’s efforts to threaten Israel and Arab regimes.
The current confrontation is the consequence of Iran’s behavior during the past three decades, said Lieberman, who was receiving an award from the organization for his support of Israel and the U.S. Jewish community.
This pattern of behavior “began with the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979 and continuing right to this day, when Iran is rightfully listed by our State Department as the No. 1 state sponsor of Islamist terrorism in the world," the senator said. "In other words, the No. 1 state sponsor of the enemy that we are fighting post-9/11 in the global war with Islamist terrorism.”
Lieberman accused Iran of sponsoring terrorist attacks resulting in the deaths of hundreds of U.S. soldiers. Drawing applause, he added, “My friends, in another time that would have been considered in itself an act of war against the United States of America.”
Lieberman cast his bill as a tool for strengthening the Obama administration’s efforts to secure Iranian concessions through heightened diplomatic outreach.
The Obama administration might not need much convincing. Robert Gates, the defense secretary, already has said he does not believe diplomacy alone will work and must be backed by the muscle of sanctions. Dennis Ross, who is shaping the administration’s Iran policy, argued during the presidential campaign for a "sticks then carrots" approach. His office has yet to make public the new Iran policy.
Ross is leaving Tuesday for a tour of Egypt and Persian Gulf states to outline the policy for leaders who have made it clear that they, like Israel, do not want to see a nuclear Iran. Those leaders also favor diplomatic outreach.
The Obama administration also has intensified its outreach to Russia, which maintains substantive ties with Iran’s energy sector, offering incentives that include greater consultation ahead of any NATO enhancement in Eastern Europe and heightened consideration of Russian objections to anti-missile deployments in the Czech Republic and in Poland.
Obama’s outreach to Tehran is likely to intensify after Iranian elections in June that could bring relative moderates to power. The threat of a popular sanctions bill wending its way through Congress while U.S. officials negotiate outreach might help spur Iran toward allowing expanded U.N. monitoring of its uranium enrichment, a pro-Israel insider said.
The bills "provide momentum" to the process, the insider said and would undergird a sanctions regime should outreach fail.
Some of the measures proposed in the bills are backed by European nations, particularly those targeting Iran’s banking sector. Others, targeting third parties that deal with the energy sector, are less popular among European business leaders.
It’s no coincidence that the bills, which are strongly backed by AIPAC, are "dropping" into Congress for consideration this week; having 6,000 conference-goers press for their passage next Tuesday is bound to give them a turbo boost.
Thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions has been a principal focus of AIPAC for nearly two decades, and the sense now in Israel is that the Islamic Republic might achieve the capability of producing highly enriched uranium before year’s end. The government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, like its predecessors, has made it clear that containing Iran is its top priority.
There had been hopes that Netanyahu would attend the policy conference and meet with Obama the same week. That’s not going to happen — Netanyahu will be represented instead by President Shimon Peres — in part because of unresolved tensions between the two governments over Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
The Netanyahu government has yet to fully commit to a two-state solution. Additionally, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Congress last week that the United States would consider dealing with a Palestinian national unity government that included Hamas as long as the government as a whole recognized Israel and rejected terrorism.
Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the chief appropriator for foreign operations, expressed skepticism about such an arrangement.
"I believe it’s not enough for Abu Mazen or Salam Fayyad to accept the principles,” she said, using Abbas’ byname and referring to Fayyad, the P.A. prime minister. “It must be all the ministers, including any minister appointed by Hamas, that comply with these principles.”
Significantly, however, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz (D-Fla.), a pro-Israel stalwart, defended Clinton in a call organized by the National Jewish Democratic Council to mark the first 100 days of the Obama administration.
"The unity government itself will have embraced those principles," she said. "The most important priority for members of Congress is to support Israel and to move the peace process forward."
The AIPAC conference schedule suggested that the pro-Israel powerhouse was edging toward accommodating a flexible posture on Palestinian statehood and whom to deal with, especially when contrasted with how the organization is dealing with Iran policy.
Policy theorists in Washington who reject isolating Iran as counterproductive are absent from the conference schedule. By contrast, there is a strong representation of speakers who favor a two-state solution. They include Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, who in recent weeks forcefully favored a settlement freeze; Aaron David Miller, a top Middle East negotiator in the Clinton administration; and Shibley Telhami, a Brookings Institution Middle East policy expert.
One insider said AIPAC’s delegates will lobby for "laying the foundations for Palestinian statehood" — a middle ground between the administration’s insistence on a two-state solution and Netanyahu’s preference for promoting the Palestinian economy.
The conference schedule underscored AIPAC’s continued influence: Speakers included Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker who is laying the groundwork for a 2012 presidential bid, and Anthony Villaraigosa, the Los Angeles mayor and a rising star in the Democratic Party.
Also on board will be two figures touted as possible Israeli envoys to Washington: Dore Gold, a former envoy to the United Nations, and Michael Oren, a historian affiliated with the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.
(With reporting from editor Ami Eden in New York.)