On Friday, Congress spoke up to challenge the Obama administration’s participation in fruitless Iran talks. Even more important, multiple Senate offices told me it is full-stream ahead with the oil sanctions legislation.
Josh Rogin reported Friday:
Nearly half the Senate told President Barack Obama today that unless Iran gives three specific concessions at this weekend’s talks with world powers in Moscow, he should abandon the ongoing negotiations over the country’s nuclear program.
“It is past time for the Iranians to take the concrete steps that would reassure the world that their nuclear program is, as they claim, exclusively peaceful,” wrote 44 senators in a Friday bipartisan letter organized by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Roy Blunt (R-MO). “Absent these steps, we must conclude that Tehran is using the talks as a cover to buy time as it continues to advance toward nuclear weapons capability. We know that you share our conviction that allowing Iran to gain this capability is unacceptable.”
The senators wrote that the “absolute minimum” Iran must do immediately to justify further talks is to shut down the Fordo uranium enrichment facility near Qom, freeze all uranium enrichment above 5 percent, and ship all uranium enriched above 5 percent out of the country.
Noticeable by their names’ absence from the list, however, were Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.)
The letter was clearly a compromise, meant to attract as many Democrats as possible. So the three conditions did not include complete suspension of uranium enrichment, and no mention in the letter was made of the oil sanctions legislation that is hovering in conference.
But we shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. The conditions are likely stringent enough to highlight the Iranian stall game. It is unlikely the Iranians will agree to any of those conditions. And the unified bipartisan message to the president at that point would be: Enough. Pull the plug on negotiations that merely provide cover for the Iranians to progress on their nuclear weapons program. It was a preemptive vote of no confidence. That is big.
Moreover, on the subject of sanctions, the Senate remains determined to move ahead. An adviser to Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) was emphatic in a phone conversation Friday afternoon. She told me, “Senator Menendez is definitely pushing forward [with sanctions].” She told me that Menendez favors moving forward with negotiations but only if there is “genuine progress.” Sanctions are the means to accomplish this in his mind.
A senior Senate aide from another office e-mailed me, “The focus of the letter was on the future of the P5+1 talks, making the argument that — in the absence of a real breakthrough in Moscow — we can’t just keep meeting for the sake of meeting. It is significant that such a large bloc of Democrats have now endorsed this proposition.” He cautioned about jumping to conclusions because sanctions weren’t mentioned. He told me, “At the same time, there is a very strong and growing bipartisan effort to push the sanctions bill forward in Congress — an effort that will gain even more momentum if Moscow goes badly. Although the letter didn’t mention the pending sanctions legislation, it would be a mistake to take the absence of evidence here as evidence of absence.”
Bethany Lesser, communications director for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), echoed this sentiment. She said bluntly that “everyone still wants the bill to go to conference.”Likewise, a spokeswoman for Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) confirmed that he is still insisting that the oil sanctions bill go to conference and be passed promptly.
The story then is three-fold. First, a bipartisan group of senators want to end the kabuki dance. Iran needs to pony up, or we should stop the negotiations charade. The president won’t draw a line in the sand, but the Senate has.
Second, the line is not as rigorous some would prefer, but given Iranian intransigence it is very likely the Moscow talks will fall short. Both Iran and Obama will lose the protective cover of being “engaged in meaningful talks.”
And third, oil sanctions are moving ahead. Not a single senator in my brief survey who signed onto the letter or who withheld signature on the grounds it was not forceful enough is willing to delay imposition of oil sanctions.
This week we will find out whether the administration comes up with a phony deal with the Iranians to give the appearance of progress and whether lawmakers blow the whistle after another unsatisfactory meeting. Then the onus will be on Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to convene a conference and produce a bill for the president’s signature.
But those crippling sanctions have come very late as Iran compiles a sufficient stockpile of enriched uranium to make multiple bombs. We are drawing close to the point when Obama will face the choice he has tried to avoid: Act militarily, support the Israelis’ military action or accept the “unacceptable,” a nuclear-armed revolutionary state sponsor of terror? And as we arrive at that point it becomes clear that the only reason for Israel (with fewer military capabilities than the United States) to act militarily rather than the United States would be that the president, even on the most critical national security threat of our time, won’t lead.