Iran work shows Kirk adjusting to life post-stroke

In his first major appearance this year outside the halls of Congress, U.S. Senator Mark Kirk had a succinct message to convey.

“I have one message for the dictators in Tehran, ‘I’m baaack,’” Kirk called out to the attendees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s 2013 policy conference earlier this month, hoisting his right thumb into the air in trademark fashion.

He was met with a roaring standing ovation from the 13,000-strong crowd.

It had taken Kirk — who 10 weeks ago returned to the Senate following a yearlong recovery from a serious stroke — nearly a minute to walk the length of the stage to the podium at the Washington Convention Center.

Yet, he did it alone, first placing his weight on his good right leg, then swinging his left leg forward, using only a four-pronged cane for balance.

Sanctions against Iran have long been a hallmark issue for the Highland Park Republican who spent a decade representing the heavily Jewish 10th Congressional District before his 2010 election to the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama.

Kirk’s dedication to the somewhat murky political subject reveals how the senator is adjusting to work back at the Capitol, and how his presence is encouraging some bipartisanship in the politically divided upper chamber.

“When you have a stroke, fatigue is going to be an issue,” Kirk said in a Friday interview with the Daily Herald. “But I’m finding it less and less of a factor.”

In recent weeks, Kirk has worked to ready a new, comprehensive piece of Iranian sanctions legislation, and with Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, N.H., wrote a letter urging the European Union to close loopholes that might allow Iran to access euros. That letter was signed by 36 members of the Senate, 19 of them Democrats.

The efforts follow two other pieces of Iran sanctions legislation that were passed as Kirk was recovering at home, giving his staffers direction on the issue between rehab sessions and speaking by phone with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On the Senate floor, New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez carried Kirk’s ideas forward.

By placing financial pressure on Iran, Kirk is, essentially, trying to wage an economic war with the country, forcing government leaders to make a choice between political survival and pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Since 2011, Kirk noted, Iranian currency has dropped by two-thirds in value.

“What I’m doing is trying to cripple their currency and their central bank, which has been the main table for terrorist groups around the world,” he said Friday.

“My view is that Senator Kirk has been the leader on Iran sanctions before the stroke, during the recovery and now that he’s back,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the pro-Israel Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “The best and most forceful ideas come from Kirk and his office.”

In a 4½-minute exchange at the Senate’s Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee March 7, an animated Kirk pressed Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen on working to eliminate Iran sanctions loopholes, asking him to “follow up on making sure a strong political signal is given from the European Union to the European Central Bank” to lock down accounts where Iranians have money around the world.

Throughout that exchange, Kirk gesticulated from his swivel chair with his right hand, speaking clearly and more quickly than in his initial recovery interview in late December. Gone is any noticeable partial paralysis on the left side of his face, the result of the ischemic stroke that affected the left side of his body.

Kirk, who has regained little use of his left arm, and is blind in one corner of his left eye, said he mainly uses a wheelchair in getting around the Capitol “to make sure we can keep an orderly appointment flow. Not to be exhausted.”

While he attends physical therapy three days a week in Washington, Kirk has not missed a vote.

He says he is dedicated to the Iran sanctions issue because he understands the pressing time line that within a year it may be possible for Iran to produce a nuclear bomb without the Western world’s knowledge.

A nuclear Iran, Kirks said, would lead to tremendous uncertainty on, among other things, the future price of gasoline.

“I know what that would do to middle-class families’ budgets,” Kirk said.

Senior staff say the new legislation would impose an arms and shipping embargo on Iran, North Korea, Syria, Sudan, Gaza and southern Lebanon; closes loopholes, including overseas access to foreign exchange reserves; and requires regular reporting to Congress on Iranian nuclear breakout and economic viability time lines.

Dubowitz said he believes the strength of Kirk’s initiatives “comes from his ability to work with Democrats.”

Kirk says he believes his stroke has “made things easier” for him in terms of reaching across the aisle, which, in addition to his work on Iran sanctions, includes crafting bipartisan gun control legislation, a portion, in part, named after 15-yuear-old slain Chicago teen Hadiya Pendleton.

Kirk said work with New Hampshire’s Shaheen on the letter to the European Union “stemmed out of sugar.”

Shortly after Kirk’s stroke last year, Shaheen advanced so far unsuccessful legislation to end the federal sugar program on Kirk’s behalf.

“Senator Kirk and I both understand that we cannot let Iran obtain the resources to develop a nuclear weapon and we are entirely committed to that cause,” Shaheen said in a statement.

Kirk said his stroke “has definitely made things more easy for me in the Senate. I would say the climb up the stairs was the very rare bipartisan moment in which a number of members came up to me and said, ‘This is the first time we’ve celebrated (together) in a long, long time.’”

  Senator Mark Kirk talks about his recovery from an ischemic stroke and returning to the U.S. Senate. Bill Zars/
  Senator Mark Kirk, since returning to the U.S. Senate in January following a serious stroke, says his energy levels are increasing. He has emerged as a leader on sanctions against Iran. Bill Zars/ ¬
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