The Debate

Don’t Hold Veterans Hostage to Iran Sanctions

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The Debate

Don’t Hold Veterans Hostage to Iran Sanctions

A GOP amendment in the U.S. Senate would force Democrats to vote on additional Iran sanctions.

Don’t Hold Veterans Hostage to Iran Sanctions
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Hill reports that a Republican amendment in the U.S. Senate is trying to hold American veterans hostage to the issue of Iran sanctions.

Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) has introduced legislation that will appropriate more than $30 billion for expanding veterans’ access to health care and education, among other changes designed to increase veteran benefits. USA Today has described the bill as the “most sweeping veterans legislation in decades.”

In introducing the bill, Sen. Sanders is largely playing politics with America’s veterans (while castigating the GOP for suggesting it will do likewise) because the bill calls for most of the funding to come from future counterterrorism appropriations. This is probably a non-starter for Republicans both because it would reduce funding for fighting terrorism and because it calls for using funds that don’t actually exist. The vote thus intentionally puts GOP Senators in a bind because voting no would be used by Democrats to characterize the Republicans as abandoning the country’s veterans, while voting yes would alienate fiscal hawks within the Republican Party.

Not to be outdone, Republican Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) has introduced an amendment to the bill that would increase sanctions against Iran despite the ongoing P5+1 negotiations and the interim nuclear deal. As most readers probably know, and as The Diplomat has reported, since the interim deal was signed in November there has been a strong push in the Senate to pass additional sanctions against Iran. The Obama administration has worked hard to prevent this legislation from passing because Iranian leaders would use it to pull out of negotiations, and because it would drastically reduce international support for sanctions.

This situation has put Democratic Senators in a bind: on the one hand, they don’t want to openly defy a president from their own party on such an important issue; on the other hand, they don’t want to be seen as not supporting some of the pro-Israel lobbying groups that are pushing for the sanctions. They seemingly resolved this conundrum by simply using the powers of the majority to prevent the bill from coming to the Senate floor for a vote.

Sen. Burr’s proposed amendment is thus an ingenious way to force Democrats to vote on the Iran sanctions issue. Given the cynical nature of the proposed legislation itself, this might be entirely justified… if Congressional Democrats were the only victims.

But of course this is not the case. Imposing more sanctions on Iran would remove the possibility of getting a negotiated settlement, and also more than likely reduce the economic pressure on Tehran by eroding international support and acquiescence to the current sanctions. In that way, it would leave Iran more capable of acquiring a nuclear weapon than if the U.S. doesn’t impose additional sanctions.

Besides harming U.S. national security, there is an indisputable degree of irony to Sen. Burr’s political ploy. First, by introducing the legislation in the first place, the Democrats hope to pit the Republicans’ desire to support America’s veterans against their desire to reduce government spending. Passing additional sanctions on Iran could potentially exacerbate this issue for the GOP in the future given that the Obama administration has promised to use military force if necessary to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

Although a breakdown in negotiations doesn’t necessarily mean Iran will decide to build nuclear weapons, it does make it more likely. That decision in turn could lead the U.S. to go to war with Iran given that airstrikes can only slightly delay Iran’s ability to acquire a nuclear weapon, even as they greatly increase its interest in doing so. And because Iran is the size of Western Europe with far less hospitable geography, going to war against Iran would greatly increase the number of future veterans whose benefits the government would be on the hook for. Eventually, fiscal reality would probably force the U.S. to reduce the actual benefits each veteran receives. Thus, the bill to expand veterans’ benefits would in actuality end up reducing it.

Military and defense officials largely recognize all this, which is why they have been extremely wary of talk about using military force against Iran, and strongly prefer that civilian officials give diplomacy every possible chance of succeeding. While civilian control of the military is a generally a good thing, in this case the politicians should listen to the generals, especially given their sorry track record in the Middle East over the last couple of decades.