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On Iran, Congress should stand with France

The near-disaster at Geneva represents a foreign policy challenge for both parties. Republicans and Democrats who understand the gravity of the president’s dangerous gambit to try to trade sanctions for Iranian promises, against the wishes of allies, have a unique opportunity to course correct American policy.

Usually the executive reigns supreme in matters of foreign policy, especially when it comes to diplomatic negotiations. But several factors have shattered the president’s preeminence. First, Congress has already played a major role as instigator of sanctions. Second, in the Syria fiasco and now with Geneva, the administration has revealed itself to be irresolute if not downright dishonest about its “redlines” and hence unworthy of the public’s blind trust. Third, the president is a greatly diminished figure, already tanking in the polls and taking positions that threaten the Democrats’ majority in the Senate.

What, then, can troubled D’s and R’s do? At the top of the list must be the passage of banking sanctions. The House has already passed its bill; the Senate mark-up is set for this week. The Senate should aim for quick and if possible unanimous passage. A top U.S. negotiator, Wendy Sherman, promised Congress if negotiators didn’t get a deal they’d be back encouraging Congress. That was untrue, as is virtually everything the Obama team has to say, but the rationale (since dropped) is correct: Sanctions, ever tightening and paralyzing to the Iranian economy, are the only way to avoid either military action or a nuclear-armed Iran. Then let the White House decide to veto it, if they are so certain that relaxing sanctions are the way to go.

It is important for opponents of the Iran give-away to rally public opinion, debunk dishonest claims by the administration and demonstrate that this is an issue of grave concern to both Democrats and Republicans. Take for example a statement put out this weekend by the 500,000-strong Concerned Women for America, a religious conservative group that has adopted support for Israel as one of its key issues, which reads in part:

Any weakening ultimately diminishes the chances of stopping Iran’s march towards nuclear arms proliferation. Although a ‘deal’ of some sort, regardless of its legitimate ability to halt Iran’s nuclear weaponization, would be politically helpful to the Obama Administration’s increasingly tarnished reputation, it could have the opposite effect on long-term goals of peace in the Middle East.  This is a shocking departure from multiple U.N. resolutions, our pledges to Israel, and this administration’s own stated policy.  “Congress’s bipartisan pushback against the administration’s unilateral negotiations is proof that key congressional leaders view any lifting of sanctions – even before Iran has done anything to halt and dismantle its nuclear program – as dangerous to the nation of Israel and to the stability of the region.

And, in a rare venture into foreign policy, the Republican Governors Association today released its own statement saying: “Reports that a nuclear agreement with Iran have stalled are a positive sign that common sense and security are prevailing. An agreement that reportedly allows Iran to continue manufacturing centrifuges and enriching uranium, and asks for relatively nothing in return, is a bad deal for America and Israel. As Prime Minister Netanyahu put it best, ‘Iran gives practically nothing and it gets a hell of a lot.’ Any deal that puts the interests of Iran ahead of the security of America, Israel and our other allies should be rejected.”

This diplomatic near-tragedy also requires both reminding the administration of its numerous pledges to ratchet up sanctions until Iran gives up its nuclear weapons program and dispelling the false narrative/excuse Secretary of State John Kerry is peddling that Iran was the party to reject the deal. Media reports tell the actual blow-by-blow account about France’s upsetting a rash and dangerous deal cooked up by the Obama team, including Foreign Policy:

The socialist government of French President François Hollande has adopted a muscular foreign policy that has put it to the right of the Obama administration on Libya, Mali, Syria and now Iran. Along the way, it has also become Israel’s primary European ally and — after the U.S. — arguably its closest friend in the world.
[French Foreign Minister Laurent] Fabius, echoing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is said to have had two serious concerns with the deal. First, the agreement failed to prevent Tehran from continuing construction on its nuclear reactor at Arak. Once the facility is operational, a key part of Iran’s nuclear program would be immune to airstrikes because bombing the plant would lead to massive, deadly, radiation leaks. Fabius was also upset that the deal didn’t require Iran to reduce its stockpiles of 20% enriched uranium, which is approaching weapons-grade. The Hollande government, Fabius told French radio, would not be part of a “fool’s game.”

France in fact has played a crucial role for years, recognizing during the Bush administration when the Europeans drove talks that Iran is insincere about a deal. As Foreign Policy notes, “France has also maintained ‘very good intelligence’ on Iran’s subsequent nuclear work through a large Paris-based Iranian exile community, which includes Iran’s former top atomic energy officials, including Akbar Etemad, the founding father of Iran’s nuclear program. . .  The French Foreign Ministry, officials say, has a particularly knowledgeable expert on Iran’s nuclear program in Martin Briens, who used to run the department that handled nuclear negotiations with Iran and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the evolution of those talks from their beginning to the present.”

Lawmakers should highlight France’s role; it is exceptional and openly confronts Kerry’s false narrative. The secretary of state’s utter lack of candor makes his  “no deal is better than a bad deal” assurance entirely unreliable.

France will be under incredible pressure from the Obama team to cave, but Congress should make clear what France’s objections are and why its negotiators acted in the interests of the West. Whatever experts are available should be called to testify before the applicable Senate and House committees this week.

A former U.S. official critical of the administration predicts, “The administration will now get  the UK and Germany to pressure the French to cave, and the call whatever deal emerges a huge, tough-minded achievement, using French acceptance to show it must be a tough deal.” The former official suggests there is “counter pressure from the UAE and Saudis.”

But Congress alone, both D’s and R’s, are uniquely positioned to hold hearings, pass sanctions, use the bully pulpit and challenge the mind-boggling conduct of Kerry and Wendy (I’ve-made-worthless-deals-with-despots-before) Sherman. Given the timeframe for the next set of talks, it can’t be stressed enough that speed, unanimity and clarity are of the utmost importance.