Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein faced criticism Wednesday for comments that some thought implied a new Iran sanctions bill could put Israel in charge of U.S. foreign policy.
Feinstein objected to moving forward on a new Iran sanctions bill sponsored by 59 senators, including 16 Democrats, and co-authored by Sen Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL). The California senator said the bill could imperil ongoing negotiations between Iran and the West, harm U.S. diplomatic credibility, break up the current international sanctions coalition, and allow Tehran to argue “we are interested in regime change.”
“Candidly, in my view, it is a march toward war,” she said, echoing the White House argument that senators who support the Iran sanctions bill have a secret pro-war agenda.
Feinstein took direct aim at a provision in the new bill that states, “If the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapon program, the United States Government 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”
Feinstein worried that this language might hamstring American foreign policy decision makers as a result.
“While I recognize and share Israel’s concern, we cannot let Israel determine when and where the United States goes to war,” she said. “By stating that the United States should provide military support to Israel in a formal resolution should it attack Iran, I fear that is how this bill is going to be interpreted.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) issued a statement Wednesday objecting to Feinstein’s remarks and demanding a retraction and an apology.
"Senator Feinstein is within her rights to disagree with a bipartisan majority of her colleagues who support Kirk-Menendez, but her suggestion that those colleagues have ceded control over 'when and where the United States goes to war' to Israel is outrageous, inflammatory and completely baseless,” RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks said.
The language specifically notes that further authorization would be needed to actually go to war in the case that Israel and Iran became entangled in open conflict, Brooks said. Prior to the bill’s introduction, Foreign Policy magazine incorrectly reported that the bill would authorize military action. It later corrected that report.
Brooks also pointed out that Feinstein voted for a Senate resolution last year, sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), that contained the exact same language. That resolution passed last May by a vote of 99-0.
"This language passed the Senate 99-0 so any senator who wants to say the language is somehow dangerous or unprecedented needs to explain why they previously supported it,” said one senior GOP Senate aide. “Was defending our democratic allies a good idea in 2013 but suddenly became a bad idea in 2014?"
Asked why the California Democrat had previously supported the language she criticized on Wednesday, Feinstein spokesman Brian Weiss told The Daily Beast that the facts on the ground have changed significantly since the Graham resolution was passed.
“When that non-binding vote occurred, Iran was accelerating its nuclear program and negotiations were going nowhere. With a change in administration in Tehran, Iran has reached out to the West and engaged in productive and ongoing diplomatic negotiations that produced the interim agreement,” he said. “With this resolution possible, Senator Feinstein believes now is not the time to undermine diplomacy with additional sanctions.”
Feinstein was one of 11 Democratic Senate committee chairs to oppose moving forward with the Menendez-Kirk bill while negotiations with Iran are ongoing. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday he would not bring the bill to the floor. Some senators are working with House leadership to move the legislation in that chamber.
In the meantime, an interim deal negotiated by the United States and the other P5+1 countries with Iran is scheduled to take effect on January 20. The agreement, which will last for six months, calls on Iran to freeze aspects of its nuclear program in exchange for what the Obama adminstration calculates will be roughly $7 billion in sanctions relief.