The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

Inside the conference negotiations on Iran sanctions

House and Senate leaders are meeting this week behind closed doors to work out language for new sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), and the administration is  pressing key Democrats hard to adopt their position, which aims to weaken the sanctions measures. The debate is taking place as part of the negotiations over ...

/* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:"Table Normal"; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-qformat:yes; mso-style-parent:""; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin-top:0in; mso-para-margin-right:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:10.0pt; mso-para-margin-left:0in; line-height:115%; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:11.0pt; font-family:"Calibri","sans-serif"; mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-fareast; mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;}

House and Senate leaders are meeting this week behind closed doors to work out language for new sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), and the administration is  pressing key Democrats hard to adopt their position, which aims to weaken the sanctions measures.

The debate is taking place as part of the negotiations over the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill, which passed both the House and the Senate and is in conference right now. The legislation will probably emerge from conference next week and pass both chambers, at which point President Barack Obama will be under heavy pressure to sign the "must pass" defense bill, with whatever Iran sanctions language the conferees agree on.

The current sanctions language at the center of the closed door debate is the amendment by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), which passed the Senate by a rare 100-0 vote over the very public objections of top Obama administration officials. The amendment would direct the Obama administration to take punitive measures against foreign banks that do business with the CBI, but gives the administration more leeway to implement the sanctions than Kirk’s original language.

The administration urged Kirk and Menendez to come up with a compromise amendment but then came out against that very compromise last week, angering and alienating Menendez, who needs to be tough on the issue ahead of his re-election bid next year. The Cable has obtained the administration’s private communications to the conferees spelling out the changes they want to the Kirk-Menendez amendment; they can be found here and here.

Basically, the administration wants to delay the implementation of sanctions not related to oil purchases from 60 to 180 days, and wants to water down the severity of sanctions measures if and when they are put into effect.

Initially, the administration turned to House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) to help them with the changes. Berman, who is inside the closed conference, initially indicated that he wanted to work with the administration to change the Kirk-Menendez amendment.

But Berman also has a tough reelection fight coming up against Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), who he must face after their districts were combined, and he can’t afford to seem weak on Iran. Today, Berman announced that he does not want to want to water down the Kirk-Menendez language at all. In fact, he said he wants to strengthen it.

"Every administration wants total discretion on foreign policy, but that is an impulse that Congress must always resist," Berman said at a conference on Thursday sponsored by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), a conservative policy and research organization. Berman spoke just after a panel on Syria, moderated by your humble Cable guy.

"I will not, and Congress should not, give into entreaties from the administration or elsewhere … to dilute our approach to sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran’s petroleum transactions," Berman said to applause. "The Kirk-Menendez amendment is a good amendment."

Berman said the only change he wants to the Kirk-Menendez amendment is to shorten the administration’s window for implementing sanctions on those who do oil business with the CBI from 180 days, as the Kirk-Menendez bill specifies, to 120 days.

Sherman, in a Thursday interview with The Cable, accused Berman of flip-flopping on the issue and said the Kirk-Menendez language should be sent to Obama’s desk exactly as it is.

"Berman was helping the administration and now he’s made a 180 degree change, which is good," Sherman said.

"We need to protect the Menendez-Kirk language," he said, making sure to name the Democrat first. "The White House doesn’t want to do it. And the White House will be trying to stop the Menendez-Kirk amendment from being in legislation that the president has to sign."

Having lost Berman, the administration then turned to other senior Democrats to carry its water inside the conference. We’re told by a senior GOP congressional aide close to the conference negotiations that House Armed Services ranking Democrat Adam Smith (D-WA) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) are now arguing inside the conference for changes to the Kirk-Menendez amendment to satisfy the administration’s concerns.

"Right now the Republicans want to adopt the Menendez/Kirk amendment while the Democrats, specifically Congressman Smith and Senator Levin, are working to incorporate the Obama administration’s changes even though Senator Levin already voted for the current language," the aide said. "At some point enough is enough – Let’s send it to the President’s desk for signature as it is."

The administration has argued publicly that the Kirk-Menendez amendment could alienate foreign countries, make it more difficult to form an international coalition to pressure Iran, and raise oil prices, which could actually help the Iranian economy. They have argued in private meetings with lawmakers that the effort could hurt the U.S. economy.

Supporters of the Kirk-Menendez amendment point to an extensive report on CBI sanctions compiled in the midst of the negotiations by the FDD.  

"The (once) confidential report was provided to the administration and select members of Congress during the discussions on the Menendez-Kirk Central Bank amendment," FDD’s Mark Dubowitz told The Cable. "The report concluded that, even if the Saudis did not release additional oil supplies, it was still possible to reduce Iran’s oil revenues without spooking oil markets and driving up the price of oil."

Sherman’s view on that tension is shared by most lawmakers. "You can’t stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon without breaking some eggs," he said.

House and Senate leaders are meeting this week behind closed doors to work out language for new sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), and the administration is  pressing key Democrats hard to adopt their position, which aims to weaken the sanctions measures.

The debate is taking place as part of the negotiations over the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill, which passed both the House and the Senate and is in conference right now. The legislation will probably emerge from conference next week and pass both chambers, at which point President Barack Obama will be under heavy pressure to sign the "must pass" defense bill, with whatever Iran sanctions language the conferees agree on.

The current sanctions language at the center of the closed door debate is the amendment by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), which passed the Senate by a rare 100-0 vote over the very public objections of top Obama administration officials. The amendment would direct the Obama administration to take punitive measures against foreign banks that do business with the CBI, but gives the administration more leeway to implement the sanctions than Kirk’s original language.

The administration urged Kirk and Menendez to come up with a compromise amendment but then came out against that very compromise last week, angering and alienating Menendez, who needs to be tough on the issue ahead of his re-election bid next year. The Cable has obtained the administration’s private communications to the conferees spelling out the changes they want to the Kirk-Menendez amendment; they can be found here and here.

Basically, the administration wants to delay the implementation of sanctions not related to oil purchases from 60 to 180 days, and wants to water down the severity of sanctions measures if and when they are put into effect.

Initially, the administration turned to House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) to help them with the changes. Berman, who is inside the closed conference, initially indicated that he wanted to work with the administration to change the Kirk-Menendez amendment.

But Berman also has a tough reelection fight coming up against Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), who he must face after their districts were combined, and he can’t afford to seem weak on Iran. Today, Berman announced that he does not want to want to water down the Kirk-Menendez language at all. In fact, he said he wants to strengthen it.

"Every administration wants total discretion on foreign policy, but that is an impulse that Congress must always resist," Berman said at a conference on Thursday sponsored by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), a conservative policy and research organization. Berman spoke just after a panel on Syria, moderated by your humble Cable guy.

"I will not, and Congress should not, give into entreaties from the administration or elsewhere … to dilute our approach to sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran’s petroleum transactions," Berman said to applause. "The Kirk-Menendez amendment is a good amendment."

Berman said the only change he wants to the Kirk-Menendez amendment is to shorten the administration’s window for implementing sanctions on those who do oil business with the CBI from 180 days, as the Kirk-Menendez bill specifies, to 120 days.

Sherman, in a Thursday interview with The Cable, accused Berman of flip-flopping on the issue and said the Kirk-Menendez language should be sent to Obama’s desk exactly as it is.

"Berman was helping the administration and now he’s made a 180 degree change, which is good," Sherman said.

"We need to protect the Menendez-Kirk language," he said, making sure to name the Democrat first. "The White House doesn’t want to do it. And the White House will be trying to stop the Menendez-Kirk amendment from being in legislation that the president has to sign."

Having lost Berman, the administration then turned to other senior Democrats to carry its water inside the conference. We’re told by a senior GOP congressional aide close to the conference negotiations that House Armed Services ranking Democrat Adam Smith (D-WA) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) are now arguing inside the conference for changes to the Kirk-Menendez amendment to satisfy the administration’s concerns.

"Right now the Republicans want to adopt the Menendez/Kirk amendment while the Democrats, specifically Congressman Smith and Senator Levin, are working to incorporate the Obama administration’s changes even though Senator Levin already voted for the current language," the aide said. "At some point enough is enough – Let’s send it to the President’s desk for signature as it is."

The administration has argued publicly that the Kirk-Menendez amendment could alienate foreign countries, make it more difficult to form an international coalition to pressure Iran, and raise oil prices, which could actually help the Iranian economy. They have argued in private meetings with lawmakers that the effort could hurt the U.S. economy.

Supporters of the Kirk-Menendez amendment point to an extensive report on CBI sanctions compiled in the midst of the negotiations by the FDD.  

"The (once) confidential report was provided to the administration and select members of Congress during the discussions on the Menendez-Kirk Central Bank amendment," FDD’s Mark Dubowitz told The Cable. "The report concluded that, even if the Saudis did not release additional oil supplies, it was still possible to reduce Iran’s oil revenues without spooking oil markets and driving up the price of oil."

Sherman’s view on that tension is shared by most lawmakers. "You can’t stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon without breaking some eggs," he said.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.