This week it became evident once again that when it comes to Iran sanctions, the Obama administration would rather Congress do as little as possible. We have seen this again and again as sanctions legislation originates in Congress and then the administration steps in to slow it down. As we head into a critical meeting with the Iranians, the administration is at it again.

Secretary of State John Kerry gestures during a statement on the situation in Egypt. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press) Secretary of State John Kerry (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

At the State Department briefing, the press voiced a certain incredulity that the administration would be trying to reject additional bargaining power:

QUESTION: Okay. And then one other thing: [Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman] was explicit in telling the senators that the administration thinks it would be helpful if they held off on additional sanctions over the next — less than two weeks now. And as I’m sure you noted, Chairman [Sen. Robert] Menendez [D-N.J.], in his opening statement, said, some of us are working on new sanctions that would lead to further reductions in purchases of Iranian petroleum. And the administration is now being criticized by a number of Republicans for suggesting a slowdown in movement towards new sanctions, including Chairman [Rep. Edward R.] Royce [R-Calif.], Senator [Mark] Kirk [D-Ill.]. Why is it when you yourselves believe, as you just said, that the only reason the Iranians are at the negotiating table is the sanctions, why is it necessary, or why is it advisable for the Senate to slow its movement on additional sanctions?

[STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN MARIE] HARF: Well, I think — a couple points — that right now, today, we have such a crippling set of multilateral and unilateral sanctions in place on the Iranian government — we’ve all seen the impact that it’s had on the Iranian economy. So right now, we feel like we’re putting a great deal of pressure on them, but we have to do things, broadly speaking, in this moment that we have an opportunity for diplomacy to work — to make that diplomacy work. And I’m not going to go into every detail about what sanctions we might like and what sanctions we might not think are as useful right now.

But in general, we need to create a climate where diplomacy has the opportunity to work — has the best chance of working. Because, let’s all be clear about how difficult this is; this is not an easy process, it’s very complicated. So we need to set the conditions, and we need to set the stage, and we need to do everything we can to give us the best chance to succeed diplomatically, because that’s everyone’s goal —that we resolve this crisis diplomatically. And so we have to give ourselves a chance to do that.

QUESTION: But if sanctions brought them to the table, why wouldn’t more sanctions make them even more eager to rein in their nuclear program and thereby get relief from the sanctions? . . .

MS. HARF: There’s a lot of outcomes that might happen from the 15th and 16th, a whole host of them, and I wouldn’t want to outline all of them from here. But clearly, we hope to make progress in Geneva. That’s the goal. We’re not naive about how hard it is, but there’s a reason that we’re going to sit down at the table again and try to take advantage of this diplomatic opening that we have today.

Whenever the administration says it is not being naïve, it is. (Kudos, however, to the reporter who seems to have a better grasp of the dynamic than does the State Department.)

Indeed, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Sherman (authoress of much of the foolish and self-delusionary North Korean negotiations that allowed that rogue regime to, it is widely believed, get a nuclear weapons capability) asked Congress to hold off on sanctions. She’d like to say to the Iranians later this month, she told the senators, that if you don’t come up with a credible plan, we’re going to pass more sanctions.  But wait. Wasn’t the whole purpose to turn up the heat in order to get not just a plan but action from the Iranians? And haven’t we threatened sanctions again and again to no avail?

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), one of the key backers of previous sanctions legislation, issued a statement reflecting widespread and bipartisan unease with Sherman’s testimony:

The State Department should not aid and abet a European appeasement policy by pressuring the Senate to delay sanctions while the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism races toward a nuclear weapons capability. The
international community should judge Iranian leaders by their actions, not their words. So long as Iran continues to pursue a nuclear weapons capability, build longer range ballistic missiles, sponsor terrorism around the world and
abuse human rights, the Senate should impose maximum economic pressure on Iran to give diplomacy a chance to succeed.

A former U.S. official who has been highly critical of this administration e-mailed, “It shows they don’t know how to negotiate. They don’t seem to understand negotiating from strength.” He then expressed a widely held sentiment on Capitol Hill: “It’s a show of fundamental incompetence.”

Cliff May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, expressed a similar view. He told me, “It should be obvious that Iran’s rulers will agree to curb their nuclear weapons program only if they are convinced that not doing so could be hazardous to their health. That suggests that we need to make it clear that unless the centrifuges stop spinning, sanctions will be enhanced —and Iran’s economy may be pushed to the point of collapse.” In a new report, the FDD suggests a list of nine additional sanctions, which, May said, “accelerate an Iranian balance of payments crisis and put pressure on Iran’s foreign exchange reserves — and perhaps alter the calculation of Iran’s decision-makers.”

Congress, which has passed a series of bipartisan and robust sanctions, is unlikely to be dissuaded (although the shutdown may in fact push sanctions legislations off for a week or so). The vast majority of lawmakers will support tightening the noose on Iran’s economy and will vigorously oppose efforts to relax sanctions absent actual evidence of compliance. (We will see just how far off the mainstream some in the isolationist corner really are and whether they will oppose new sanctions and efforts to make our military threat more credible.)

The president keeps saying he’s not going to be snookered by the Iranians. But judging from the performance of administration officials this week, including the abysmal phone call with Hassan Rouhani, there is reason for concern.