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Exclusive: The Hawks’ Playbook for Opposing an Obama Nuclear Deal with Iran

Exclusive: The Hawks’ Playbook for Opposing an Obama Nuclear Deal with Iran

Though the United States has yet to secure a final deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program, an influential pair of hawks in Washington have already devised a way for Congress to unravel any potential agreement after the ink is dry.

The plan, obtained by Foreign Policy, calls on Congress to oppose the lifting of financial sanctions on Iran until it proves that its entire financial sector, including the Central Bank of Iran, has sworn off support for terrorism, money-laundering, and proliferation. Some of those topics haven’t been part of the ongoing U.S.-led talks with Tehran, which means that linking sanctions relief to those conditions after a deal is made would likely drive the Iranians off the wall, say experts. Tehran would likely see any such measures as moving the goalposts and as evidence that the United States wasn’t genuinely interested in backing up its end of the deal. 

The two authors of the plan — Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank, and Richard Goldberg, the former senior foreign-policy advisor to Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk — each played pivotal roles in shaping the Iran sanctions debate in the past year. Rather than blowing up an historic agreement, they both insist the paper is simply a guide for how to keep sanctions in place that will deter and punish Iran if it doesn’t comply with a final deal.

Whatever their motivations, the detailed strategy document is of keen interest to advocates on both sides of the Iran debate given the immense political clout its authors enjoy on Capitol Hill and the significant role Congress will have in approving, modifying, or rejecting a final deal.

"This plan will elicit a lot of support on the Hill," said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "They have an enormous amount of sway on the Hill on the issue of sanctions, both because of their expertise and their energetic efforts to advance their case."

A regular on Capitol Hill, Dubowitz provided expert testimony on the Iran talks before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in November and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June. His warnings about the folly of Obama’s "bad deal" with Tehran and the inherent deceptiveness of the Iranian regime were often cited by hawkish lawmakers in both parties, including the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). "He’s very well informed, with a team of Wall Street consultants who contribute to [his] analytical materials on the Iranian economy," said Maloney.

Goldberg, the onetime Kirk aide, operated skillfully inside the Senate last year to build bipartisan support for a bill that would have imposed new sanctions on Iran if it failed to live up the terms of the interim deal signed in Geneva last year. The White House derisively referred it as a "march to war" and President Obama threatened to veto it, but Goldberg pressed the flesh in December and January and managed to get some 60 senators to co-sponsor the legislation. "Goldberg played a tireless and influential role in building that coalition," said a Senate aide. Prior to that, Goldberg and his boss helped draft hard-hitting sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran that the administration initially opposed but later cited as one its most effective financial weapons against Tehran.

Titled "Smart Relief After an Iran Deal," the duo’s new paper details what sanctions Congress should maintain after Iran and six world powers (Britain, France, Germany, China, the United States, and Russia), otherwise known as the P5+1, reach a final agreement.

To be sure, it’s far from certain that the P5+1 will be able to strike a final deal in Vienna by the July 20 deadline. Negotiators are hashing out a permanent deal designed to restrain Iran’s nuclear program while unwinding international sanctions imposed on the regime. Last week diplomats left the Austrian capital with a working document, the first concrete advance in months. Negotiators said all sides appeared to be working in good faith and the seven nations agreed to a two-week marathon session from July 2 to July 15. "We are at a very crucial moment in these negotiations," Wendy Sherman, the chief U.S. negotiator, said last week. "Our conversations this week have been very tough but constructive."

Although many obstacles remain to a final deal, the possibility of an agreement only heightens the importance of Congress’s role in the nuclear talks. The Obama administration is free to negotiate a deal of its choosing and can issue temporary waivers exempting Iran from certain sanctions, but only Congress has the authority to lift the measures once and for all — a key component to any deal, say experts. That’s where Dubowitz and Goldberg come in.

A major tenet of their strategy is to maintain restrictions on Iran’s oil exports and limit what the government can do with its oil revenues.

As it stands, Iranian oil revenues are accumulating in escrow accounts thanks to a 2012 law passed by Congress called the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act. Iran can only spend these escrow funds on certain goods in countries which buy its oil. In their paper, Dubowitz and Goldberg say "none of these escrowed oil funds" should be repatriated back to Iran until the country ceases being a "state sponsor of terror." The sanctions regime bears some resemblance to the Iraq oil-for-food program established by the United Nations in 1995 to allow Saddam Hussein to sell oil on the world market in exchange for medicine, food, and similar items.

Given the widespread corruption that poisoned the Iraq program, Maloney, the Brookings expert, questioned the new plan’s wisdom. "I can’t imagine that anyone sees the Iraqi sanctions regime as a model for success," she said. "Even if Tehran might agree to such provisions, it would be politically suicidal; control of oil production, exports, and revenues is the wellspring of Middle Eastern nationalism."

Dubowitz rejected the comparison, noting that his preferred plan is based on the existing oil revenues escrow program, would not be administered by the United Nations and allows Iran to purchase a much wider array of goods than the oil-for-food program did. "This is not about oil-for-food, it’s about oil for anything that’s non-sanctionable," he said.

His proposed sanctions regime would still bar Iran from spending money on a list of items in the energy, technology and telecommunications sector — and place other limits on sanctions relief as well. 

The State Department designated Iran as a state that sponsors terrorism in 1984 because of its ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and, later, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah. For permanent sanctions relief, the paper calls for the president to certify that Iran is no longer a "state sponsor of terror."

Since the Obama administration will not likely place such demands on Iran in a potential Vienna deal, some say the paper sets up the White House for failure. "Such stringent parameters are likely to make achieving a mutually acceptable deal impossible," said Laicie Heeley of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

Dubowitz is well aware that the administration is likely to fall short of his strategy paper, should it manage to secure a deal in the first place. Regardless, he says he wants to arm members of Congress with the information they need to scrutinize any final deal. "We think the administration’s deal should be measured against some standard with respect to how sanctions relief should be done and this is our contribution to that framework," he said in an interview. 

Though some are skeptical of the validity of Dubowitz’s and Goldberg’s views, no one questions their relevance in the public debate. If negotiators manage to complete a deal, their voices will only grow louder in the weeks to come.

A copy of the strategy document appears below:

Final Smart Sanctions Report