Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) triggered controversy with a fiery floor speech in the Senate on Tuesday night, accusing supporters of the bipartisan Kirk-Menendez bill on Iran sanctions of wanting “regime change” and declaring that “we cannot let Israel determine when and where the United States goes to war.” The bill includes a provision offering support to Israel in the event of an Israeli pre-emptive strike on Iran.
Feinstein chairs the Select Committee on Intelligence and is considered pro-Israel, but her remarks, which echo those of anti-Israel critics, have provoked outrage. The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) called on her to apologize, noting that the bill includes a proviso that: “Nothing in this Act or the amendments made by this Act shall be construed as a declaration of war or an authorization of the use of force against Iran.”
Adding that the Kirk-Menendez bill’s language on Israel is the same as that in another bill that Feinstein co-sponsored, RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks blasted Feinstein: “We are deeply troubled to see Senator Feinstein making such incendiary and inaccurate remarks on the Senate floor. We call on her to retract this reckless and false charge and apologize to her colleagues and to the millions of Americans who support a comprehensive, robust strategy to prevent the Tehran regime from obtaining a nuclear weapons capability.”
In her speech, Feinstein said that “a vote for this legislation will cause negotiations to collapse,” arguing that the six-month deal reached in Geneva and finalized on Sunday represented “the best opportunity in more than 30 years to make a major change in Iranian behavior.” The deal provides some sanctions relief in return for suspending parts of Iran’s uranium enrichment program and allowing limited international inspections.
The Kirk-Menendez bill provides for tighter sanctions in the event that Iran fails to comply with the Geneva agreement. Yet the Obama administration has vowed to veto the bill regardless, believing that it sends a message of confrontation. Supporters of the legislation, including former Bush and Obama administration Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, believe that it will actually strengthen Obama’s hand in negotiations.
The legislation currently has 59 co-sponsors in the Senate, eight shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto. Almost every Republican Senator supports the bill, while only a minority of Senate Democrats are co-sponsors. Some Democrats, including Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, have been caught both opposing and supporting the legislation to different audiences.
Feinstein warned that hard-liners in Iran would use the bill to “argue that the United States is not interested in nuclear diplomacy–we are interested in regime change.” That, however, is what they argue already. Scholar Kenneth Pollack, who is opposed to war in Iran and favors negotiations and “containment,” says in his new book on Iran that the Obama administration’s failure to pursue regime change in 2009 was “reprehensible.”
Democrats who wish to support the Obama administration’s line are praising Feinstein’s speech, and it will likely provide political cover to those who wish to oppose the bill but wish to do so without appearing to oppose Israel. Her incendiary remarks about Israel are not likely to be forgotten by Republicans, either.