President Obama continues to face headwinds on his Iran policy, in part because he refuses to show Congress the agreement to implement the deal he says Congress would ruin if it passed new sanctions. As absurd as it sounds, that is what the president is asking for — blind faith from lawmakers. Not surprisingly, he is being pummeled.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has been working strenuously behind the scenes, put out a memo urging lawmakers to pass additional sanctions legislation. It begins:
The interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 goes into effect on January 20, with ongoing concerns remaining about Iran’s continued nuclear program and the extent of sanctions relief it will receive. As implementation of the agreement begins, Congress must take three important steps: (1) strictly oversee Iranian compliance; (2) lay out the contours of an acceptable final agreement; and (3) advance legislation that will spell out the consequences for Tehran if it violates the interim deal or rebuffs a verifiable final pact ending Iran’s nuclear weapons pursuit.
It then rebuts two main complaints about the administration’s anti-sanctions campaign. First, the deal is secret. (“Congress must insist that the administration fully apprise it on all terms of the agreement, Tehran’s progress in implementing the deal, and all developments in negotiations on a final agreement.”) Second, the sanctions relief is much more extensive than the administration let on. (“The administration values the relief at $7-8 billion, yet outside experts have placed the value much higher.”)
But what may give the administration heartburn is the enunciation of the terms of a final deal that would match up with United Nations resolutions and the administration’s own purported policy: “Dismantle [Iran's] illicit nuclear infrastructure, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and the heavy water reactor and production plant at Arak, such that it is prevented from pursuing both uranium and plutonium pathways to a nuclear weapon.” This is precisely what Iran says it will never do. It emphasizes that the president would have the latitude to suspend sanctions if negotiations are progressing with Iran or it reaches an acceptable final deal, but it explicitly calls for Congress to have an opportunity to express disapproval of a deal and enact oil sanctions and human rights sanctions.
Finally, the memo makes a strong case for additional sanctions legislation that would kick in if Iran cheats or fails to reach a final deal that complies with U.N. resolutions.
In short, trust Obama, but verify what he is up to and insist he not make a sweetheart deal that gives Iran what it wants. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on PBS’s NewsHour, took the administration to task, saying he approved “severe new sanctions, but sanctions that would be triggered only by failure of the negotiations would strengthen the president’s negotiating hand.” He swatted away the president’s excuse: “I hear the argument that would strengthen the hand of hawks in Iran and the opponents of the negotiation. Well maybe the Iranians ought to worry about the potential consequences of strengthening the hawks in the United States. But I think any new sanctions need to be conditioned and triggered by the failure of the negotiations.” Indeed.
A majority of senators agree with Gates, but so far Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is opposing a vote. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blasted him for it yesterday, saying, “Sen. Reid’s refusal to allow a vote on this important, commonsense proposal becomes harder to explain with each passing day. It’s also a perfect illustration of how his unilateral approach to running the Senate doesn’t just prevent Republicans from pursuing legislation but Democrats too.” McConnell has been pressing for a vote on the bill. “If the White House opposes this bill, it’s free to make the case. . . . There’s good reason to believe sanctions helped bring the Iranians to the negotiating table in the first place, and raising the prospect of additional sanctions is one of the best tools we have to ensure they uphold the commitment they made under the interim agreement in November.” And appearing on Fox News last night, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called the deal “Swiss cheese” and asserted that the administration should come clean on all the terms of the deal, how close to a nuclear bomb Iran would be at the end of the interim deal and whether Iran is going to be forced to give up its nuclear stockpile and infrastructure.
Reid’s intransigence is stunning since there is a veto-proof majority (77, by some accounts) for the bill. Reid is standing athwart Congress, including his own Democratic colleagues, shouting, “Stop!” He likes to posit himself as a friend of Israel, but here is on the White House’s and Iran’s side. Maybe he should use whatever time he has left as majority leader to do something meaningful and in fact essential for U.S. security. In other words, try telling the Iranians, “Stop!” rather than his colleagues.
Sanctions supporters may decide to start legislation in the House, hoping to put additional pressure on Reid. At this point however, Reid has to decide if he wants to be the one man in Congress standing with the president and the Iranians against the only alternative to an Iranian nuclear weapon.