White House Spars With Congress Over New Iran Sanctions

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

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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