Following a Wednesday briefing by the administration’s Iran negotiator Wendy Sherman of key House committee chairmen and leadership, some portrayed the meeting as defusing congressional concerns about the U.S. posture against Iran. Foreign Policy went to far as to characterize the House members as “mollified,” despite “an effort by AIPAC lobbyists to fire them up.” Now both parties are pushing back against that take.
A committee aide familiar with the meeting told Right Turn, “That’s a great angle for a story. But I don’t think it’s necessarily a true angle.” He was careful to make a distinction between appreciation for the meeting and the reaction to what went on. The aide said the participants were “glad” the administration took time to brief members, something the administration hasn’t always done. However, he said that there is “a high degree of skepticism” about lifting any sanctions until verifiable action has been taken by Iran. Moreover, he stressed that on the need to prevent Iran from going nuclear, “Congress is united. Leadership is united.”
A Democrat and official with a pro-Israel organization (not AIPAC) tells me, “Administrations have a long history of publicly opposing congressional sanctions — on Syria, on Libya, on Russia, on Iran — and then embracing the sanctions and using them for leverage. It stands to reason that if it weren’t for congressionally mandated pressure on Iran, the admin wouldn’t have any talks to brief members about.” He adds, “Clearly everyone, including Congress, hopes Iran takes the steps necessary to eliminate the possibility it could develop nuclear weapons, but hope is not a policy, and one briefing is not dispositive. Only Iranian actions can make a difference.” Whatever happy talk Sherman provides, the Democrat is convinced that “as Iran continues to add to its enriched nuclear
stockpiles, we will see Congress continue working to add sanctions pressure.”
A spokesman for the Republicans on the committee told me that House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (Calif.) attended the meeting, but has the same concerns as he expressed in a letter sent to the president last week. That letter stated that to reach a peaceful agreement to disable Iran’s nuclear program, “U.S. negotiators face an uphill battle.” He continued:
As such, it is critical that we maximize our negotiating leverage through the immediate implementation of additional economic sanctions. Your assistance in securing Senate passage of H.R. 850, the bipartisan legislation I authored and that the House of Representatives adopted overwhelmingly, would dramatically increase the financial pressure on the Iranian regime, and thereby strengthen the hand of U.S. negotiators. International sanctions have forced Iran to the negotiating table; we should build upon this success with additional measures to compel Iran to make meaningful and lasting concessions. Additionally, you must continue to make clear that all options remain on the table to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability.
The notion that this is purely an Israeli issue or an issue for pro-Israel Americans was given the back of the hand by both Republicans and Democrats. Noting the public complaints from Jordan and Saudi Arabia over perceived U.S. weakness on Iran, a committee aide said that Iran getting the bomb poses “an existential threat for the Saudis and the Jordanians.” That’s a phrase usually applied to Israel.
In short, there is widespread relief in the House that Sherman has not yet “given away the store,” as one committee staffer put it. However, House members — who have already passed banking sanctions expected to come up soon in the Senate — remain vigilant and unwilling to consider lifting sanctions based on warm and fuzzy feelings or Iranian words. That sentiment is bipartisan, perhaps the single issue on the Hill with the most bipartisan agreement. (The House’s banking sanctions bill passed by a huge margin of 400 to 20.) If the administration sees things differently, it will encounter stiff and unified resistance from Congress — not to mention its allies in the region.