White House Spars With Congress Over New Iran Sanctions

Congress plays bad cop on Iran as Obama’s diplomatic outreach continues

  • Share
  • Read Later
Ebrahim Noroozi / AP

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gives a speech during an annual military parade in Tehran on Sept, 22, 2013

In Shi‘ite scripture, the Prophet Muhammad had two grandsons named Hassan and Hussein. After their father Ali’s assassination in 661, Hassan, the elder son, claimed the right of vengeance against Ali’s killer, Muawiyah. Realizing he could not win militarily, he was forced to find a diplomatic solution and eventually signed a peace accord. Hussein, refusing to accept such a bitter deal, attacked Muawiyah’s son in battle. Hussein lost, and he and his entire family were killed. The story reflects the two extremes of Shi‘ite negotiations: a forced peace and martyrdom.

According to a speech last month, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei believes that Iran is now on Hassan’s path, or the path of diplomacy. Just don’t tell that to the U.S. Congress.

In July, 130 members of Congress sent President Obama a letter urging him to give diplomacy with Iran a chance. But the following month, the House passed a new round of sanctions against Iran by a vote of 400 to 20, with more than 100 of the members who’d signed the letter encouraging diplomacy voting for the new sanctions. Those sanctions now go to the Senate for a vote expected as early as this week. The Obama Administration has pressed both chambers to lay off the sanctions in order to give diplomacy a chance, yet Congress is moving full steam ahead.

(MORE: Four Good Reasons Why Iran Doesn’t Trust America)

The Administration came away from mid-October meetings with Iran in Geneva “cautiously optimistic,” so much so that chief U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman made a rare public statement last week urging congressional patience. “Congress has its prerogatives,” she told Voice of America on Friday. “We don’t get to control Congress, but we are having very serious discussions. We work as partners with Congress. They’ve been very effective partners as we’ve tried to approach this negotiation. We need them to continue to be effective partners to reach a successful conclusion, and I have trust that they will be.” The next round of talks is scheduled for Nov. 7.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who was elected this summer on a platform of engagement with the West, and President Obama spoke on the phone last month, the first engagement between U.S. and Iranian heads of state since the 1979 revolution. The Administration has been hopeful that Rouhani will be a more willing interlocutor than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was overtly hostile to the U.S. and Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned Rouhani is simply a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” who’s merely running out the clock as Iran’s centrifuges produce more uranium.

Complicating matters is a report out last week by the Institute for Science and International Security, based in Washington, D.C., saying that Iran could possess enough highly enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb by next month, not early next year, as most intelligence officials have estimated. “Whether a month or a year, Iran’s determined march toward possessing nuclear weapons is a direct and grave threat to the United States and our allies,” House majority leader Eric Cantor said Friday in a statement. “We all want negotiations to succeed, but time is clearly running out.”

(MORE: Behind Iran’s Charm Offensive)

The pro-Israeli lobby is pressing the Senate to pass the sanctions to ramp up pressure Iran into giving up its nuclear program. “The Obama Administration continues to waffle and send mixed messages in its dealings with the Iranian regime, and that has emboldened the regime while stirring deep concern among our allies,” the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Matt Brooks said. “When the Senate reconvenes next week, we hope that Senate Banking Committee chairman Tim Johnson and majority leader Harry Reid will press forward on strong sanctions against Iran. We cannot soften the U.S. position on sanctions unless and until the Iranian regime stops talking and takes measurable, concrete action to end the pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

If the bill passes, Obama may be put in the awkward position of vetoing sanctions against Iran. More likely the Administration will do as it has in the past: drag its feet on implementation and, according to some members of Congress, ignore provisions it feels would go too far in alienating the delicate coalition it has organized against Iran, which includes Russia and China.

There may be a silver lining to the standoff. Many argue that Obama’s good-cop routine only works if Congress is a very believable bad cop. To that end, Congress may be doing exactly what Obama wants, despite his public protestations. “The only reason Iran is at the negotiating table, after all, is the devastating impact that sanctions have had on its economy and currency. As a result, Iran is weakened, isolated, and on the defensive — further evidence that U.S. leverage has worked,” Nicholas Burns, a former State Department official who negotiated with Iran, wrote last week in the Boston Globe. “Maintaining this balance between diplomatic openness and flexibility on the one hand versus persistent application of sanctions on the other will be a challenge for the Obama team. And it will need help from Congress and Israel as the talks proceed.”

MORE: What an Iran Deal Would Look Like

19 comments
ciya155
ciya155

One of the most puzzling aspect of this issue is the degree to which Americans misjudge political discourse in Iran about N program. I am sure there are many (specially in businesses) who might want some form of accommodation with US but that is a thin veneer over majority that will not accept any retreat from Iran’s position let alone capitulation as some members of congress want. They are either ignorant of Iran’s history or arrogantly want to ignore it. For centuries the fundamental quest of Iranian people has been independence and self-determination this stems from the historical fact that for more than 7 centuries of Iran’s 3000 years history the country’s territorial integrity have been violated and its political system dominate by outside forces the last of which was the 1953 CIA coup in Iran. The main cry of 1906 and 1979 revolutions has been independence from foreign interference. Inside Iran the nuclear issue is seen as yet another example of external interference in internal affair and this is absolutely unacceptable. No one in Iran can give the United States what it wants. Specially since Islamic Republic’s main source of legitimacy comes from the fact that after two centuries it has regained Iran’s independence. The political dynamic that pursues confrontational path with Iran is not seeking America’s interests but that of Israel. Today Iran and United States have critical common interest to bring stability to the region. US position in the Middle East specially after invasion of Iraq has weakened to the point that US is about to lose all strategic assets. At the same time to preserve its independence Iran need US to counter balance Russia, Iran’s most mistrusted northern neighbor. To understand US position it is enough to imagine the fall of Saudi monarchy already overdue. With no friend left in the Middle East and Israel’s liability the future of US influence in energy market and security of dollar depending on oil it is not prudent for US to remain hostile to Iran. New sanctions against Iran will have far worse consequences as situation in the Middle East deteriorate. Imposition new round of sanction will end every possibility of dialogue. Iranians will endure every hardship to protect their independence.

AminSan
AminSan

As you indicated in your article, about a hundred members who had earlier signed a letter to Obama asking him to engage with Iran diplomatically, then turned around and voted to the sanctions. Votes in Congress are a result of the fear factor instituted by AIPAC. If the Senate follows the House and votes, I am sure it will be with a veto proof majority. There are only two outcomes as a result of this vote, either the sanctions fall apart or the leadership in Iran comes to the conclusion that no amount of negotiations and claw backs will satisfy the US. Build a bomb and face a long war. They have nothing more to loose so I guess it will be the second option. I can guarantee you one thing, you will not be able to subdue Iran.

SamuelClemens
SamuelClemens

Congress won't do it job, so a war would be nice. The controlling faction hates the idea of government itself, except for the joyful killing of war. The rest are pure sheep, there for the lobbyist money and pay off upon retirement. The American legislature is a wounded, deranged beast dangerous to the world and the nation.

ChandraPanchabhikesan
ChandraPanchabhikesan

Diplomacy with Iran will always be dictated by Israel's dictates. Of course dealings with Iran were not  straight forward given the bad blood and frosty relationship with Ahmadinejad.  Now there is some hope, perhaps wishful thinking, that with President Rouhani there could be greater flexibility and a desire for peaceful coexistence between the two countries. However there are stumbling blcks in the way. Iran wants to join the nuclear club which the United States is deadly against. Israel will never allow that too. But Iran is hell-bent on becoming a nuclear power despite its protestations  that it is for peaceful purposes!  

Pancha Chandra Brussels

Mariah76857
Mariah76857

  <!--my classmate's mother makes $80 every hour on the laptop. She has been laid off for 9 months but last month her pay was $15203 just working on the laptop for a few hours. look what i found............................BUZZ55.COM-->

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Thanks, Jay, good summary of issues here. Any chance you're going back to Iran soon to check up on everyday folks there? YOU should get a dead-tree cover story as reward for your work this year (like Catherine Mayer just did). I wonder what other options everyone is pursuing with Iran. I remember the proposed 2010 deal that Russia, Turkey, and other countries looked at - a fuel swap to process uranium overseas to keep it from turning into bombs. The arrangement, alas, involved so many countries that it made a baseball three-way deal look simple, but it was studied. Might something similar - but simpler - be back on the table with a new Iranian leader?

derekcaamano
derekcaamano

@ciya155 The issue is that dialogue will be futile regardless as long as Iran is led by deceitful dictators that have their own aggressive agendas regardless of what any international partner says to them. 

SamMcDonagle
SamMcDonagle

@ciya155 Historically speaking Iran was also a bastion of logic, science, and enlightenment.  For several centuries-Iranian Shias ruled the Caliphates that made up the Middle East, and by most accounts ruled well.  Unfortunately now, the nation is run by psychopaths, more apt to kill scholars than support them, which means that they're no longer a viable partner in the region.  When they stip funding terrorism, we can discuss the nukes.  However, with this regime I never see it happening.

derekcaamano
derekcaamano

@AminSan Well we had better hope that the government subdues Iran. Otherwise we're looking at a nuclear Iran that will destabilize the region and then the world.

jmac
jmac

@SamuelClemens  The article implies the good cop (the sheep)/ bad cop (haters of government)  might actually work in this situation.  

No one thinks peace in the MIddle East is going to be easy but we're a progressive nation that finally got health care after a hundred years of trying,  so peace in the Middle East isn't off the table.  It's doable. 

derekcaamano
derekcaamano

@ChandraPanchabhikesan The difficulty with negotiations though, is that although the President has changed, the Supreme Leader hasn't. And the Supreme Leader makes pretty much all the calls in Iran, so the system is still the same, which will thus obviously delay cooperation and lasting negotiations. 

SamMcDonagle
SamMcDonagle

@ChandraPanchabhikesan Really? I see no detente until the Iranians stop funding terrorists and allow their people to vote democratically.  With the Basij and IRGC on the streets daily, the country is in no way free, and this includes what they spread throughout the region.  Look at Syria, Assad should have been gone loooong ago, but do to Iranian support, it hasn't happened.

SamMcDonagle
SamMcDonagle

@deconstructiva You would hope.  But the nuclear program is under the Supreme Leader and IRGC, so no matter what deal Rouhani could make, it would have to go through the hardliners, who hate everyone outside of Iran.

alex.reston
alex.reston

@SamMcDonagle @ciya155  

I don't think the Rulers of Iran are psychopaths.  They are clearly quite logical even if they are a bit unbending. The rulers of Saudi Arabia and more or less every Arab country are crazier then the Iranians. We call many of them friends. Iran can be a natural partner of America and we Americans can benefit from Iran's position becoming better. The first step is for people like you to stop portraying Iran and Iranians as crazy lunatics because it is simply wrong and counterproductive.

alex.reston
alex.reston

@derekcaamano @AminSan  

Israel is the main destabilizing factor in the Middle East. The sooner real Americans understand this the better for all of us. Israel is not part of America and doesn't look out for American interests. AIPAC and other groups like them should be  reigned in.

SamMcDonagle
SamMcDonagle

@jmac @SamuelClemens I'm sure it's doable, I just think we need to have partners who are actually for peace.  They Ayatollah's continued funding of terrorists answers that question real quick.

derekcaamano
derekcaamano

@jmac @SamuelClemens It's doable if the Iranian government is reformed into a truly moderate and democratic system. For now though, with Khamenei as the Supreme Leader, things will remain the same and there's not much hope for negotiations.

alex.reston
alex.reston

@SamMcDonagle @derekcaamano @ChandraPanchabhikesan  

When there was Democracy in Iran we overthrew it. Iran and Iranians will never bow to America. The best way for us to get reform in Iran is to let it happen naturally. We have to start talking to them and trading with them. Eventually they will change themselves. 70% of the population is under 30 years old and they are very educated. If we attack Iran the entire country will unite behind the leaders they hate just a little less then bowing to a foreign interest. They will fight to the death and no one will gain a thing from it.