Boehner translated the President’s request by saying, “He expects us to stand idly by and do nothing while he cuts a bad deal with Iran.” The speaker added on behalf of most congressional Republicans and some Democrats, “We’re going to do no such thing.”
In his address on Tuesday, the president vowed to veto any bill that seeks to impose new sanctions on Iran, something that Breitbart reports is a direct repeat of his language in last year’s address. In both instances, Obama described his diplomatic approach as avoiding the risks of war that the US might otherwise face. But in the latest speech he was somewhat more explicit, implying that war would actually be the outcome if a new sanctions bill was passed.
“The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort,” he said, “and I intend to stay true to that wisdom.” But the bill currently under consideration by Congress says nothing of military action and would only impose new economic sanctions against Iran six days after the end of talks if they failed to come to a positive conclusion by the current June 30 deadline.
Obama could not, therefore, be suggesting that the proposed congressional action would lead directly to the US initiating a war. And for supporters of the sanctions bill it is difficult to see how such a conditional arrangement could single-handedly derail to talks. But the Jerusalem Post clarifies by reporting that US negotiators have “US negotiators have become convinced that Iran will interpret Congress’s actions as a violation of the Joint Plan of Action, an interim nuclear accord that has set the terms for talks.”
But for critics of the talks, this evokes a double standard. US negotiators themselves have evidently not interpreted questionable Iranian actions as violations of the JPOA, even though some independent analysts have done so. These actions include sales of crude oil in excess of limits set by the US, as well as the procurement of new equipment for the Arak heavy water reactor, the actual installation of which would be an explicit violation of the interim agreement. Furthermore, some have alleged that Iran violated the freeze on its enrichment capability when it tested more advanced enrichment centrifuges.
As the Obama administration has opted to look the other way on each of these possible violations, Iran’s interpretation of triggered sanctions as a violation of the JPOA would seem to indicate much lesser commitment to the negotiating process. If this is the case, the proposed legislation may push Iran away from the negotiating table, but its weak commitment might also mean that they are unlikely to follow through on a compromise deal.
One Republican congressional aide expressed exasperation about the extent of Iranian obstruction of progress, saying that a vote on the new sanctions would likely go forward shorter after Netanyahu’s visit because “they got their delay” already.
Iowa Senator Joni Ernst articulated the majority Republican perspective on the prospective legislation in her response to the president’s State of the Union address. In an conference call with Iowa reporters on Wednesday morning, she explained, “I am of the school of thought we need to show Iran that we are serious about this. And I would like to see additional pressure coming from congress saying: ‘You know what, Iran? We have delayed, delayed, delayed and we need you to come to plate and we need you to follow up.”
Ernst implied a view of the current Middle East crisis that is almost directly opposite to that of President Obama. According to Radio Iowa, at the same time that she called for a harder line on Iran, she expressed uncertainty about Obama’s request for authorization for the use of force against the Islamic State, noting that she still needed to determine whether the US has a “clear objective” in the region.
This reflects similar doubts by other legislators, commentators, and opponents of the Iranian regime, who have variously expressed concern that the Obama administration is pursuing a partnership with one source of Islamic extremism in order to combat another.
Many supporters of the new sanctions legislation can be said to be motivated by a fundamental mistrust of Iran, which the president apparently lacks. The sanctions legislation aside, this difference seems to be leading to what the Economic Times has characterized as a “showdown” between the president and the Senate over the issue of Iran policy.
And the arena for this showdown on Wednesday morning was a meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where the sponsors and supporters of the sanctions bill were able to work toward a veto-proof majority for it while expressing their own views on the Obama administration’s policy.
But at the same time that this meeting facilitated that confrontation, it also gave voice to those Senators who either support the administration’s approach or oppose it in a more measured way. Thus, the hearing saw the announcement of an alternative bill that has not been released yet but will be sponsored by Senators Barbara Boxer and Rand Paul. According to the National Journal, they have characterized their bill as a “moderate” alternative that would avoid new sanctions but would allow Congress to quickly reinstate prior sanctions if Iran is shown to be in violation of its agreements.
Still the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did air particularly strong criticisms of the president’s approach as well. As Breitbart points out, Senator Robert Menendez, one of the sponsors of the sanctions bill, said, “The more I hear from the administration and its quotes, the more it sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran. And it feeds to the Iranian narrative of victimization, when they are the ones with original sin, an illicit nuclear weapons program going back over the course of 20 years that they are unwilling to come clean on.”
This is indicative of the strength of Obama’s commitment to securing a deal, and an editorial in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday argued that it is very difficult for Congress to stop a president that is so committed. But the article added that Congress does have leverage in the current situation, due in part to Iran’s demand for complete and immediate removal of economic sanctions.
The Journal argues that Congress should use that leverage to insist that the nuclear agreement takes the form of a treaty, thus securing an explicit role for the Senate as well as permanent effect for the document. The editorial goes on to say that Congress should then pass legislation setting the parameters for that treaty, including the gradual removal of sanctions, the lack of waiver options, and the ability to establish a private entity to enforce the provisions of the deal.