The tussle between the Obama administration and Congress over the severity of new sanctions on Iran is going on mostly behind closed doors. Staffers on the committee aren’t willing to talk. “We’ve got a tough slog ahead, [and] don’t want to upset the apple cart right now,” said one. But the members themselves are under fierce pressure not to capitulate to the administration’s requests to water down sanctions. Josh Rogin reports that the House Armed Services Committee’s ranking Democrat, Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who was fingered as one who might be susceptible to administration pressure (after Democratic California Rep. Howard Berman brushed off the Obama team) insisted he is no water carrier:

Smith reached out to The Cable today to refute claims made by a senior GOP aide in our story yesterday that he and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) were pushing for changes to the Kirk-Menendez Iran sanctions amendment that would weaken its penalties on the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and any foreign banks that do business with it. The administration has been pushing for changes to the amendment that would weaken the sanctions, and give the administration more flexibility in implementing them. . . .

“It is not accurate to say we are trying to water it down,” Smith said, declining to get into specifics about what changes he is seeking.

“Different people have different views on what is stronger than something than something else, but this notion that Menendez and Kirk got it absolutely 100 percent perfectly right, and that there’s no point discussing anything else that can be done to it, doesn’t make any sense to me,” Smith said.

“It’s not a matter of weaker or stronger, it’s a matter of making sure we get the language right, in order to put us in a position to put the maximum amount of pressure on Iran. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

That sounds like one nervous congressman. (Whenever a pol says something is not weaker or stronger, more liberal or conservative, you can bet it is.) Berman knew enough to publicly reject the administration’s entreaties. Rogin quotes him at a Thursday conference at a conservative think tank as saying: “I will not, and Congress should not, give into entreaties from the administration or elsewhere . . . to dilute our approach to sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran’s petroleum transactions. The Kirk-Menendez amendment is a good amendment.”

So what’s the problem Smith is trying to fix?

The Senate Republican Policy Committee has an insightful analysis that explains:

There remain reports the Obama Administration is back at it again attempting to weaken sanctions authority against Iran [that] Congress is attempting to provide in the Kirk-Menendez Amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill, an amendment the Senate passed by a vote of 100-0. Much like its efforts last year lobbying against the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA), it is being reported the Administration once again is seeking an exemption to the coverage of the sanctions for foreign financial institutions falling within the primary jurisdictions of countries cooperating with the United States on Iran. This weakening is unnecessary for two reasons. First, the underlying Kirk-Menendez Amendment already contains sufficient waiver authority if the Obama Administration would like to exempt from its coverage foreign financial institutions supporting Iran. Second, this exemption would likely be used to exempt entities in Russia and China from the ambit of the Kirk-Menendez Amendment sanctions, where Russia and China are surely not cooperating on nonproliferation efforts in Iran.

It is not as if the administration itself asked for tough measures:

When it was publicly revealed Iran was planning to execute a terrorist attack in the United States to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton said the United States will seek ways to further isolate Iran and make sure Iran pays a price for its behavior. Attempting to weaken Iran sanctions authority is an odd way to go about that. It would appear wholly unnecessary to substantively weaken the Kirk-Menendez Amendment providing increased sanctions authority against Iran, an amendment that passed the Senate by a vote of 100-0.

This comes in conjunction, as the Post editorial board points out, with a strange speech by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in which he seemed to be “public disparaging of the force option.”

Taken together with the Panetta speech, the latest effort to fiddle with the Menendez-Kirk amendment seems to show precisely what the board spotted, namely an administration “determined to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon — unless it means taking military or diplomatic risks, or paying an economic price.” In other words, saying it is unacceptable for Iran to get nuclear weapons comes with a footnote.