President Obama, with British Prime Minister David Cameron riding sidecar, is repeating threats to veto any Iran sanctions legislation and claiming it will break up the unity of the P5+1 and end negotiations. That assertion reflects the problem: The president does not understand the leverage he possesses and is telling the Iranians he wants a deal more than they do (hence the prediction that they would leave the table).
Members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, see things very differently and reject the Obama-Iran threat of diplomatic calamity. In their eyes, only a showing of substantial economic pressure can bring the Iranians to their senses and reestablish U.S. resolve to end Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program.
The New York Times, in a story almost certainly leaked by furious Democratic senators or staff, reported a face-off between the president and dogged sanctions proponent Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). When Obama accused his fellow Democrats of being moved by “donors and others,” Menendez reportedly stood and expressed his outrage, telling the president he took “personal offense” to the remark.
So do many others. Josh Block, a longtime Democrat and head of The Israel Project, fumed: “This administration appears willing to both dissemble — and claim falsely that Iran’s nuclear program is ‘frozen’ when in fact we know that during the negotiation period Iran has already amassed enough additional enriched material for one more nuclear weapon — and impugn the motives of Senators and others who take a different policy view, as the President himself did yesterday saying to Senators that their motives for increasing pressure on Iran are based not on principle, or 20 years of working to stop Iran, but on being bribed or pressured by ‘donors and others.’ ” He added, “It’s a vile suggestion and one that will only damages the President’s personal credibility and his position.”
Indeed, past administration advisers, scholars, past cabinet officials and by a huge margin the American people favor sanctions to prevent Iran from getting a bomb. (Was the president in the grip of “donors and others” when he signed sanctions into law? Congress is just acting consistently with what was Obama’s Iran policy.)
The Republican Jewish Coalition put out a statement:
What exactly was President Obama suggesting when he said opposition to his Iran policy is due to “donors”? No one would say opposition to his Russia policy is due to “donors”, or his Cuba policy is due to “donors”, or his general foreign policy is due to “donors”. So why did President Obama single out those who seek tougher sanctions on Iran and say their viewpoints are based on “donors”? The threat Iran poses to Israel and the western world is a national security issue. Attributing opposition to his Iran policy to the views of “donors” is an inappropriate statement and it underplays the serious threat that Iran represents.”
Obama’s not-so-subtle inference, these critics see, is the hideous trope that lawmakers are in the pocket of the “Israel lobby.” The president tiptoed up to that point with the inference left hanging, but Menendez and others clearly got the message. They cannot have genuine fears about the president’s fire sale on American bargaining positions or read the mullahs as contemptuous of the president? It is sadly representative of Obama’s pattern that critics operate in bad faith and with ulterior motives. (The White House previously called sanctions advocates “war mongers.”) In this rare instance, however, Menendez caught him on it and then someone went to the Times. The episode is indicative of the growing divide between the cocooned White House and Congress (both Democrats and Republicans) on foreign policy. There is bipartisan agreement among lawmakers that the president’s weakness, blindness to the global threat of jihadists and self-delusion about the power of diplomacy not backed by force are dangerous. And frankly, they don’t trust the administration to be honest with them about status of negotiations. Congress should move swiftly forward on sanctions, and if need be, vote to override Obama’s veto.
UPDATE: House majority leader Kevin McCarthy has put out a powerful statement:
Although directed at lawmakers from his own party, I am offended by President Obama’s reported insinuation that Congressional concerns about Iran are driven by donors and politics. The President’s reported comments unfairly and incorrectly ascribe political motivations to the significant bipartisan concerns that many Members of Congress have about the Administration’s Iran policy. Both the Obama Administration’s concessionary approach to nuclear negotiations with Iran and its lack of an effective strategy to confront Iran’s continuing aggression and support for terrorism throughout the region provide ample reason for concern. Having recently returned from a trip to the Middle East, I can attest that these concerns are shared not only by Republicans and Democrats, but by Arabs and Israelis alike.
As I have said before, I believe the Administration has fundamentally misread the nature and strategy of the regime in Tehran. Securing an acceptable agreement with Iran will be difficult, if not impossible, unless decision makers in Tehran face additional pressure from the United States and international community. I call upon the President to work with the Congress and America’s partners in crafting a strategy to increase the financial and diplomatic pressure on Iran, bolster the weakened credibility of our military threat, and confront the growing threat Tehran poses to international peace and security.
The only presidential contender to weigh in as of this writing is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was blistering: “Those who have worked long and hard — in both parties — to prevent Iran from securing a nuclear weapon should not have their motives questioned by a president whose own support for Israel ebbs and flows. His statement — that those who take a harder line than he does about Iran’s nuclear program are bowing to “donors” — shows his continuing disrespect for real policy debate. What’s more, it’s a pretty clear effort to impugn the motives of senators and all Americans who deeply fear the impact of the Iranian nuclear weapons program on Israel. Israel is our strongest ally in the Middle East, and her supporters do not defend her for reasons of short-term political gain but because they believe in Israel’s fundamental right to exist and thrive against considerable odds. The president should apologize for the inflammatory and offensive comment.”