Exclusive: Top Senate Democrats Break with White House and Circulate New Iran Sanctions Bill

Three top senators, including two Democrats, have begun circulating a draft of a new Iran sanctions bill that critics say could violate the terms of an agreement struck between Iran and the United States in Geneva last month. The bill, set for introduction by the Democratic chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, along with top sanctions hawks Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), defies the Obama administration's repeated requests for Congress to hold off on any new legislation that could imperil last month's interim nuclear pact with Iran while talks continue toward a comprehensive final deal.

A copy of the bill, dubbed the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013*, was obtained by Foreign Policy. The new sanctions are unlikely to come to a vote in the Senate this week in the final days of the 2013 session.* Instead, the Senate would likely consider the measure after it returns on Jan. 6.

The legislation would broaden the scope of the sanctions already imposed against Iran, expanding the restrictions on Iran's energy sector to include all aspects of its petroleum trade and putting in place measures targeting Iran's shipping and mining sectors. The bill allows Obama to waive the new sanctions during the current talks by certifying every 30 days that Iran is complying with the Geneva deal and negotiating in good faith on a final agreement, as well as meeting other conditions such as not sponsoring or carrying out acts of terrorism against U.S. targets.

In accordance with goals laid out frequently by hard-liners in Congress and the influential lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the bill sets tough conditions for a final deal, should one be reached with Iranian negotiators. Among those conditions is a provision that only allows Obama to waive new sanctions, even after a final deal has been struck, if that deal bars Iran from enriching any new uranium whatsoever. The bill states Obama may not waive sanctions unless the United States and its allies "reached a final and verifiable agreement or arrangement with Iran that will ... dismantle Iran's illicit nuclear infrastructure, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and facilities." (Congress could also block Obama's waivers by passing a "joint resolution of disapproval" against a final deal.)

The bill includes a non-binding provision that states that if Israel takes "military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran's nuclear weapons program,"  the U.S. "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." That language mirrors that introduced in February by another Iran hawk, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). With the support of AIPAC, the Graham resolution, a non-binding bill, was passed by the Senate in April.*

Critics of imposing new sanctions fear that the bill will violate either the spirit or the letter of the Joint Plan of Action signed in Geneva. The interim deal allows some flexibility, mandating that "the U.S. administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions." Administration officials have mounted a so-far successful effort to stall new sanctions in the Senate. (The House overwhelmingly passed new sanctions in the summer.) Previous rumors of a bill in the Senate were said to contain a six-month delay that would prevent the legislation from taking effect while talks continued, but this iteration of the legislation doesn't contain that kind of fail-safe. Asked this month by Time what would happen if a bill, even with a delay, passed Congress, Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said, "The entire deal is dead."

"The law as written comes close to violating the letter [of the Geneva agreement] since the sanctions go into effect immediately unless the administration immediately waives them," said Colin Kahl, who stepped down in 2011* as the Pentagon's top Mideast policy official. "There is no question the legislation violates the spirit of the Geneva agreement and it would undoubtedly be seen by the Iranians that way, giving ammunition to hard-liners and other spoilers looking to derail further progress."

Though a fact-sheet circulating with the new bill says it "does not violate the Joint Plan of Action," critics allege it would mark a defeat for the administration and the broader push for a diplomatic solution to the Iran crisis.

"It would kill the talks, invalidate the interim deal to freeze Iran's nuclear program, and pledge U.S. military and economic support for an Israel-led war on Iran," said Jamal Abdi, the policy director for the Washington-based National Iranian American Council, a group that supports diplomatic efforts to head off the Iranian nuclear crisis. "There is no better way to cut Iranian moderates down, empower hardliners who want to kill the talks, and ensure that this standoff ends with war instead of a deal."

The bill would in effect set up a direct confrontation with the White House, which is negotiating a final deal with Tehran that would allow for continued Iranian enrichment capabilities. According to the agreement, the comprehensive deal would "involve a mutually defined enrichment program" with strict curbs. In a forum this month at the Brookings Institution, Obama dismissed the possibility that Tehran would agree to a deal that eliminated Iran's entire nuclear program or its domestic enrichment capabilities.

"If we could create an option in which Iran eliminated every single nut and bolt of their nuclear program, and foreswore the possibility of ever having a nuclear program, and, for that matter, got rid of all its military capabilities, I would take it," Obama said. "That particular option is not available." Asked again about not allowing any Iranian enrichment, Obama quipped, to laughter from the audience, "One can envision an ideal world in which Iran said, 'We'll destroy every element and facility and you name it, it's all gone.' I can envision a world in which Congress passed every one of my bills that I put forward. I mean, there are a lot of things that I can envision that would be wonderful."

Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the RAND Corporation, agreed dismantling Iran's entire nuclear program would be "pretty unrealistic." He added such an aim would be moving "backward": "The Geneva agreement basically states that if Iran is more transparent regarding its nuclear program and intentions, then it can be met with sanctions relief. That's the goal: transparency."

Nader said that diplomacy required flexibility from both sides, something the legislation doesn't seem to contain. "When you have these kinds of bills, it shows that there are those in the U.S. who don't want to be flexible," he said.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story contained several factual errors. It misstated the name of legislation that could introduce additional sanctions against Iran. That draft bill is the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013, not the Iran Nuclear Weapon Free Act of 2013. Additionally, the bill does not authorize military force against Iran and mirrors non-binding legislation approved by the Senate earlier this year. The bill would not attach any amendments to a pending Pentagon budget bill. Finally, Colin Kahl left the Pentagon in December of 2011, not last year.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Cable

Senators: CIA 'Misleading' Public Over Secret Torture Report

U.S. senators openly castigated the Central Intelligence Agency on Tuesday for delaying the release of a long-awaited report on torture and secret prisons during the Bush era. Despite earlier comments that the committee, which commissioned the report, and the CIA were reaching an agreement on portions the controversial 6,000-page study, progress on its declassification is once again stymied. Meanwhile, long-simmering disagreements about the accuracy of the interrogation report have exploded into public view. 

"I'm convinced more than ever that we need to declassify the report so that those with a political agenda can no longer manipulate public opinion," said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), referring to the CIA.

"He's mad. I'm mad. We're all mad," added Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D-WV).

The interrogation report is the product of three year's work and $40 million in preparation costs. Ever since its completion one year ago last week, there's been strong disagreement among intelligence officials and lawmakers over how much information the public should be allowed to read, in large part because there's no agreement on the findings. Some officials say it is deeply flawed and inaccurate, but others consider it the most authoritative account of one of the darkest chapters in the CIA's history.

Tuesday's confirmation hearing for the CIA's top lawyer served as a proxy for Senate Democrats to vent frustrations for what they see as the CIA slow-walking the report's release. 

In a markedly different tone from last week, Senate Intel chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said her staff was now unsatisfied with the CIA's willingness to work with her committee on disagreements in the report. 

"We can't really complete what we need to complete," she said. "I mentioned it today and again the staff said: ‘Well, we've asked for this information from the CIA and we haven't received it.'"

Before the report is released, the White House has encouraged both the committee and the CIA to flesh out the differences they have with its findings. The problem is, the process is taking exceedingly long and both sides are blaming the other for delays.

Last week, the CIA insisted it was "prepared to work with the Committee." It highlighted the written response it gave to the committee in late June. "Our response agreed with a number of the study's findings, but also detailed significant errors in the study," said CIA spokesman Dean Boyd.

That public remark concerning factual errors infuriated Senate Democrats despite the fact that it's been the CIA's position for months.

"I am outraged that the CIA continues to make misleading statements about the committee's study of the CIA's interrogation program," said Heinrich. "There is only one instance in which the CIA pointed out a factual error in the study -- a minor error that has been corrected. For the rest, where the committee and the CIA differ, we differ on interpretation and conclusions from an agreed upon factual record."

"You can't publicly call our differences of opinion significant errors in press releases," he said. "It's misleading. These are not factual errors."

What exactly the two sides disagree on is a mystery because the report remains classified. And because President Obama's nominee for general counsel of the CIA, Caroline Krass,  was not the target of Senate outrage, she merely nodded along during the hearing, promising to cooperate with the committee if confirmed.

Republicans on the committee such as Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), who have made clear they disagree with much of the committee's report, neglected to weigh in on the issue during the hearing.

Officials who are familiar with the report's conclusions say that it offers detailed examples of how subjecting prisoners to harsh interrogations, including what human rights groups and others call torture, may have been counterproductive, and that the techniques didn't produce any leads that helped the CIA find Osama bin Laden, as some current and former CIA officials claim. Feinstein said in a statement last year that the CIA had made "terrible mistakes" by interrogating suspects in secret prisons, and that the report "will settle the debate once and for all over whether our nation should every employ coercive interrogation techniques."

Chambliss, the intelligence committee's top Republican, has said the report contains "omissions about the history and utility of the CIA's detention program." He also said investigators compiled their findings "without interviewing any of the people involved" in the CIA program.

In an interesting disclosure, Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) noted that an internal CIA report exists that he says "is consistent with the Intelligence Committee's report" and differs from the CIA's official response to the committee. Udall said he and the committee would like to examine that report.

When contacted, the CIA told The Cable, "We're aware of the Committee's request and will respond appropriately."

One thing that is clear: Despite the fact that Feinstein said the committee would vote "shorty" to declassify the report, it's a near-certainty that the vote won't happen before the Senate breaks for recess given ongoing disputes between the committee and agency. Feinstein appeared visibly frustrated. "Let's get on with it," she said. "Let's vote to declassify."