Are Feinstein’s fears about the Iran sanctions bill overblown?

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), in a half-hour speech on the Senate floor on Tuesday, made her case against proposed new Iran sanctions. And she provoked some controversy with her take on some Israel-related language in the legislation.

Feinstein left the Israel component for the end of her speech (and thanks to Lobe Log for transcribing the entire speech). Here’s the relevant passage of her remarks:

And let me acknowledge Israel’s real, well-founded concerns that a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten its very existence.

While I recognize and share Israel’s concern, we cannot let Israel determine when and where the U.S. goes to war.

By stating that the U.S. should provide military support to Israel should it attack Iran, I fear that is exactly what this bill will do.

The interim agreement with Iran is strong, tough and realistic. It represents the first significant opportunity to change a three decade course in Iran and an opening to improve one of our most poisonous bilateral relationships.

It opens the door to a new future which not only considers Israel’s national security—but protects our own.

What she’s referring to is this part of the bill:

If the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapon program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence.

The Republican Jewish Coalition called on Feinstein to apologize, saying she mischaracterized the relevant portion of the bill:

The ‘provision’ of S. 1881 that Feinstein points to is carefully crafted and subject to a special additional provision making it clear that it does not provide an authorization for war in any contingency.

“Moreover, the language of the provision Senator Feinstein cited is identical to language contained in S. Res. 65, which passed the Senate unanimously – and which Senator Feinstein cosponsored!

The “special additional provision” that the RJC refers to is at the end of the sanctions bill now under consideration:

Nothing in this Act or the amendments made by this Act shall be construed as a declaration of war or an authorization of the use of force against Iran.

So is Feinstein’s characterization of the bill “reckless and false” and “incendiary and inaccurate” as the RJC says in its release? The broader question is whether the bill’s language commits the United States to militarily support of Israel should it strike Iran.

There is an amorphous hierarchy in the language of congressional legislation: On top, naturally, is the action portion of bills, and this itself has its own hierarchy of verbs (“will,” “shall,” “may,” etc.). Below that are the “whereases,” which set up the action language; there is along with that, “sense of Congress” portions of bills, which is where the language Feinstein refers to appears. Anything that is a “sense of Congress” is, by definition, not binding (the earlier resolution is also non-binding), which means that it does not commit the United States to an action. On the other hand, “sense of Congress” language exists for a reason — otherwise why include it?

So perhaps Feinstein’s concern that the inclusion of the language would compel the U.S. “go to war” is overblown, but she is not mischaracterizing the language. That said, the RJC poses an excellent question: Why does language that she co-sponsored in May so rankle her in January?

NEXT STORY