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Democrats divided on harsher sanctions on Iran

As the U.S. Senate considers beefing up sanctions against Iran, it’s worth remembering that New Mexico’s U.S. senators are in powerful positions to influence this and other foreign policy matters.

Sen. Tom Udall sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Martin Heinrich is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Last week, I asked the Democratic lawmakers where they stand on a controversial proposal to ratchet up sanctions on Iran even as a delicate six-month agreement is set to go into effect this week. The existing deal, hammered out in Geneva late last year and set to begin Jan. 20, would ease certain economic sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy in return for the suspension of the rogue state’s nuclear program as negotiators try to reach a longer-term agreement.

A proposal floated by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J, would establish a new sanctions regime that he says would make Iran more accountable in the coming six months.

“Should Iran breach this (existing six-month) agreement or fail to negotiate in good faith, the penalties it would face are severe,” Menendez wrote in a Washington Post op-ed column earlier this month. “Nations would be required to further reduce their purchases of Iranian petroleum, and new sanctions would be applied against Iran’s mining, engineering and construction sectors.”

Everyone in Congress wants to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions; the question is how best to go about it.

Heinrich, siding with President Obama and many in the intelligence community, opposes Menendez’s proposal, arguing that it could scuttle hard-won concessions that led to the current agreement. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has warned that “the entire deal is dead” if the Menendez sanctions are passed by Congress.

“I tend to agree with the intelligence community that if we move forward in the midst of these negotiations with these sanctions, what you’re going to do potentially is ruin the negotiations while they’re in progress,” Heinrich said.

“If the Iranians do not meet their obligations under this interim agreement I will be one of the first people to say ‘let’s increase our sanctions,’ but right now we have a window of opportunity to really unwind this nuclear program and avoid a potentially very serious military conflict in the region.”

Sen. Tom Udall, who is up for re-election in 2014, told me he hasn’t taken a position. “I’m still evaluating the impact on both sides of this,” he said.

Udall’s not alone. Only a handful of Senate Democrats have publicly backed the Menendez bill and a couple dozen others haven’t taken a position, according to a head count by Politico earlier this week.

Speculation about the unease has centered on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, a powerful Jewish lobby that supports the Menendez bill. Some think senators – especially those up for re-election – are staying on the sidelines for fear of offending either AIPAC or the White House.

The deal reached in late November is an important first step in convincing Iran to abandon any plans it may have to become the world’s sixth nuclear weapons state. Specifically, Iran has agreed to halt enrichment of uranium above 5 percent purity, and dilute its stockpile of enriched uranium approaching 20 percent purity, which is considered weapons-grade. It will also allow regular inspections of its nuclear facilities by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.

In return, world powers agreed to suspend certain sanctions on trade in gold and precious metals, Iran’s automotive sector and its petrochemical exports, essentially returning about $4.2 billion to Iran’s economy. The most far-reaching sanctions against Iran – oil and banking restrictions that have devastated its economy – will remain firmly in place.

Last week, I asked Robert Einhorn, a former State Department official who helped craft the current sanctions against Iran as a special assistant to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for his take on the Menendez bill. He’s not a fan.

“What’s at stake is undermining the best opportunity we have to stop Iran’s nuclear program,” Einhorn said. “Supporters of this bill should ask themselves what happens if inadvertently their efforts result in the scuttling of these negotiations. In that case, what options do they have for resolving this issue? I’m sure most of the sponsors of this bill are well-meaning. They wish to give the administration additional leverage. But I think most of them are mistaken.”

Email: mcoleman@abqjournal.com.

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