Senate Democrats Block Bid to Link Iran Sanctions Relief to Releasing Americans, Recognizing Israel

By Patrick Goodenough | September 18, 2015 | 1:30am EDT
The four American citizens in Iranian custody or missing in Iran, clockwise from top left, are Amir Hekmati, Bob Levinson, Saeed Abedini, Jason Rezaian (Photos: AP/Hekmati family via, AP/Levinson family, American Center for Law and Justice, AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

( – A last-ditch Senate Republican attempt to apply the brakes to President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal failed Thursday, and every Democrat but one voted to block an attempt to tie sanctions relief to Iran’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist and its release of U.S. citizens in its custody.

For the third time in a week Democrats blocked an up-or-down vote on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), denying the majority the 60 votes needed to advance a resolution disapproving the deal. The vote, like last time, was 56-42.

But before that the Senate also voted on an amendment, presented by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), prohibiting the lifting of sanctions unless Iran releases Pastor Saeed Abedini, former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, and the missing retired FBI agent Bob Levinson.

Sanctions would also not be lifted unless Iran “formally recognizes the State of Israel as a sovereign and independent state,” according to the proposal.

The measure failed on a vote of 56-45. Three of the four Democrats who oppose the JCPOA – Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Ben Cardin of Maryland – voted with their Democratic colleagues in this instance.

The fourth Democrat opposed to the nuclear deal, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, voted with the Republicans.

Before the vote, McConnell said the administration had failed in its negotiations with Iran to ensure the release of the American citizens it holds, or to ensure Iran’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist.

He acknowledged that the Senate was split over the nuclear deal itself. But, he said, “at the very least” it ought to be able to come together in support of his amendment.

Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) characterized the GOP move as cynical, and a waste of time.

“The Senate has already spoken and made it absolutely clear the agreement with Iran will stand,” he said.

“Instead of focusing on the critical issue of funding our government, Sen. McConnell has decided to waste an entire week on something that has already been decided – twice.”

Reid mounted a preemptive defense of Democrats who could face criticism relating to the two sensitive issues at the center of McConnell’s amendment.

All senators, Democrat and Republican, want Iran to release the four U.S. citizens, he said.

Moreover, Democrats believed Iran should recognize Israel, but similarly believed other countries in that region – beyond Jordan and Egypt – should as well, Reid added.

“What my Republican colleagues are doing now is very, very cynical. They’re taking serious issues and turning them into pawns on the political chessboard.”

Thursday marked the end of the 60-day period for Congress to review the JCPOA, in line with the bipartisan Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, signed by Obama last May.

The legislation gave Congress the right, after reviewing the deal, to vote on a joint resolution of approval, a joint resolution of disapproval, or to take no action.

A resolution of disapproval duly went forward, and Obama threatened to veto it if it reached his desk.

Over the summer an anticipated groundswell of Democratic opposition to the JCPOA failed to materialize in the Senate, with only Schumer, Menendez,  Cardin and Manchin in the end coming out against the deal.

Democratic support for the agreement was sufficient both to sustain a presidential veto – and ultimately to filibuster the resolution in the Senate, saving Obama the embarrassment of having to veto legislation in order to protect a signature foreign policy initiative.

Republicans in the House took a different approach, and last week passed a resolution stating that Obama had not complied with the nuclear review legislation, since he had not produced two “side agreements” between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

As such, it argued that the 60-day review period never actually started. That could lay the groundwork for a future lawsuit against the administration.

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