Minnesota senators undecided in unusual fight over Iran sanctions

REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
A Senate bill would institute a fresh round of sanctions if nuclear talks between Iran and the international community fall apart.

WASHINGTON — Bills creating international sanctions are usually among the few to consistently win broad bipartisan support in Congress.

But Kate Gould, a foreign policy lobbyist who wrote an anti-sanctions op-ed directed toward Minnesota’s U.S. senators earlier this month, said she sees something different in the way the Senate is approaching potential new sanctions against Iran.

The bill in question, introduced by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), would institute a fresh round of sanctions if nuclear talks between Iran and the international community fall apart. While most senators reportedly support the bill, Democrats are sharply divided and waging a very public debate over it. Senate leadership and the White House oppose the measure, so much so that even some the sanctions’ biggest proponents say the bill is stalled while the United States holds nuclear talks with Iran.

“It's difficult for them because they've been so supportive of sanctions,” said Gould, who works for the Friends Committee on National Legislation. “The point we're trying to make is we're really at a different point here.”

Declined to take position

Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken are publicly undecided on the new sanctions. In a Star Tribune article last week, both declined to take a position either way, and their offices had no news to report on Wednesday.

When Congress considers sanctions bills they usually sail through with ease: during the past four years, the Senate has passed many unanimously, and often fewer than 100 House members vote no. That held true the last time an Iran bill came up, when only 40 members opposed expanding sanctions last July, just a few months before the White House announced a breakthrough nuclear deal. The first component of that deal — loosening some sanctions in exchange for Iran destroying some of its nuclear components, all while deeper discussions continue — took effect earlier this week.

Sanctions votes: Minnesota delegation unanimous

Country Bill House tally Senate tally
HR 1410 Unanimous
Prohibits foreign aid above previous year's levels unless conditions are met.
Burma/South Sudan
HR 5986 Unanimous Unanimous
Recognizes South Sudan for some trade purposes; Renews ban on Burmese imports.
HR 515 Unanimous Unanimous
Provides new conditions for ending sanctions on Belarus.
Iran/North Korea
HR 2105 Y: 418
N: 2
Expands conditions of anti-nuclear sanctions on Iran, North Korea, and Syria.
HR 2194 Y: 408
N: 8
Y: 99
N: 0
H.J. Res. 56 Unanimous Unanimous
Renews ban on Burmese imports.
Source: govtrack.us

“We have this unprecedented opportunity to actually turn the page on the decades-long confrontation with Iran,” Gould said. “New sanctions would be a direct violation of that agreement.”

That’s a common line for sanctions opponents, usually liberal lawmakers who say sanctions do little to improve American relations with hostile countries. Reps. Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison voted against the July bill, and have voted against other sanctions bills over the years as well. Ellison was one of only 11 lawmakers to oppose sanctions against Iran and Syria in 2012, for instance.

Sanctions votes: Minnesota delegation divided

    House Senate
or topic
Bill Yes No NV Tally Yes No Tally
HR 850 Walz
Y: 400
N: 20
HR 6156 Walz
McCollum Y: 365
N: 43
Y: 92
N: 4
Normalizes trade relations with Russia and Moldova.
HR 1905 Walz
Ellison Bachmann Y: 410
N: 11
Voice vote

HR 2072 Walz
Paulsen Bachmann Y: 330
N: 93
Y: 78
N: 20
Prohibits giving Bank credit to those subject to Iranian petroleum sanctions.
Source: govtrack.us

“I believe that dialogue is almost always the right policy, and when it comes to Iran-U.S. relations, we should put more effort into diplomacy,” he said. “The one thing we haven’t really tried is diplomacy, since 1979, except for this recent round” of talks.

In July, McCollum said that sanctions bill “sends the signal that the U.S. wishes to punish the Iranian people and will only settle for submission, rather than a negotiated, face saving solution.”

'Blunt instrument'

She called sanctions a “blunt instrument,” which is how Tom Hanson described them as well. Hanson, University of Minnesota, Duluth’s diplomat in resident, said the United States often uses sanctions to cut off major global markets for the industries of the countries it’s targeting. They’ve worked well in some countries — Libya abandoned its nuclear program under U.S. pressure — though failed elsewhere, like Iraq, where sanctions failed to precipitate the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

“It's been an arrow in our quiver for quite some time,” Hanson said. “To the extent that we can get our allies in Europe to go along with these, it can be very effective tool.” 

In a statement earlier this month, Obama himself credited tougher sanctions with enticing Iran toward nuclear talks. At the same time, he promised to veto any further sanctions bill, warning, “imposing additional sanctions now will only risk derailing our efforts to resolve this issue peacefully.”

Since 2009, Obama has signed at least nine non-spending bills with sanctions provisions in them; he’s vetoed none. They’ve become almost an easy vote for most members of Congress.

“There’s no immediate cost for doing it and it does seem kind of a patriotic thing to do,” Hanson said. “It's something that usually will pass handily.”

Devin Henry can be reached at dhenry@minnpost.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Bruce Johnson on 01/23/2014 - 01:41 pm.

    Previous sanctions have strengthened moderates politically and pushed the government to bargain. This current sanctions bill is intended to scuttle the bargaining process and bring back prospects of war with Iran, which have been diminished as moderates gained political strength. Both Senators should vote against the bill.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/23/2014 - 05:17 pm.

    No sanctions, no leverage

    With no sanctions hanging over their heads, the Mullahs will just proceed with building their bombs and the missiles capable of delivering them. Shortly thereafter Israel will cease to exist if they haven’t taken pre-emptive action by then.

    So yeah, the senators have to weigh whether they want the destruction of Israel on their hands, which apparently is a tough call for Amy and Al.

  3. Submitted by James Hamilton on 01/23/2014 - 06:10 pm.

    Time to commit,

    regardless of the upcoming election, Sen. Franken. Vote “no” on further sanctions and let diplomacy play out. You, too, Sen. Klobuchar. This is no time to hide in the weeds.

  4. Submitted by rolf westgard on 01/23/2014 - 06:22 pm.

    Iran plans large use of nuclear power

    Their plan calls for 20 1000MW nuclear plants, and they want to make the fuel for those plants. That’s a reasonable objective, and we should support it with inspections to make sure they stay on that path.
    When do we call for inspection of the Israel nuclear weapons program?

  5. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 01/23/2014 - 07:24 pm.

    Neither will commit

    They are both waiting for the problem to go away so they don’t have to vote and we can count on Harry Reid to make sure that no vote is taken. Problem solved.

  6. Submitted by Wes Davey on 01/24/2014 - 08:33 am.

    Give diplomacy a chance

    Choose – A Poem by Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)

    The single clenched fist, lifted and ready,
    Or the open hand, held out and waiting.
    Choose: For we meet by one or the other.

    40+ years of sanctions (a clenched fist) have achieved nothing, so now we should impose further sanctions in hope they might work? Perhaps that does make sense to chicken hawks and war hawks.

    It’s time to give diplomacy a chance (the open hand of peace).

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