Obama warns Congress against new sanctions on Iran

In a joint press conference with the president Friday, British Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed he has taken the unusual step of contacting several US senators since arriving in Washington to underscore the threat he believes new sanctions now would pose.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama meets with British Prime Minister David Cameron prior to a press conference, Friday, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Growing fears about the specter of terrorism in Europe and the West are lending themselves to a sense of trans-Atlantic solidarity as Obama and Cameron met at the White House.

Another battle is brewing in the war between the White House and Congress over the Iran nuclear talks – and it’s a battle that is intensifying as international negotiations on a comprehensive deal with Iran reach a make-or-break point. 

President Obama is so concerned that a fresh round of sanctions from Congress right now could “blow up” the international diplomatic process with Iran – and narrow options for dealing with Tehran’s nuclear advancement to military intervention – that he made the issue a focus of his meeting Friday with British Prime Minister David Cameron and of the two leaders’ post-meeting White House press conference.

And Mr. Cameron made it clear he backs Mr. Obama’s effort to squelch congressional action on sanctions at this point in delicate talks with Iran that involve the US, Britain, and four other world powers.

Cameron confirmed he has taken the unusual step of contacting several US senators since arriving in Washington Thursday to underscore the threat he believes new sanctions now would pose to the international unity that has kept Tehran at the negotiating table and put a diplomatic solution within reach.

Responding to a journalist’s query, Cameron said he had contacted “a couple senators,” and planned to contact a few more before heading home, to express his “opinion that sanctions at this point won’t actually help and would fracture the international unity” that Iran faces in the talks.

“Congress needs to show patience” and “hold off [on action] for a few months,” Obama said, repeating a vow to “veto a bill that comes to my desk” while the talks are under way.

Under an agreement on an extension of the negotiations reached in November, Iran and world powers are to reach the outline of a comprehensive deal by March, with the deadline for a final accord set for June 30.

So far Congress is showing no signs of being swayed by such arguments.

Key senators from both political parties who have long been skeptical of President Obama’s focus on diplomacy to prohibit Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon are pushing ahead with legislation.

One measure, co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Kirk, (R) of Illinois, and Sen. Robert Menendez, (D) of New Jersey, would impose a tough new round of sanctions on Iran’s energy and banking sectors if talks do not result in a deal by June. 

Another from Sen. Bob Corker, (R) of Tennessee, would mandate a Senate vote on any final nuclear deal that Mr. Obama deems is not a “treaty” and thus does not require Senate ratification. 

The measures might seem like just another round in the ongoing debate between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue over whether get-tough pressure from Congress in the form of new sanctions helps the talks’ prospects – the congressional point of view – or would “blow up” the negotiations, as Obama said Friday and White House national security adviser Susan Rice asserted last month. 

Except for one thing: The shift in Senate control to the Republicans this month and expansion of the body’s hawkish ranks reinforce the perspective that Congress really aims to scuttle the talks – and to curtail what some see as Obama’s drive for a legacy-setting renewal of relations with Iran.

Those twin goals rang loud and clear in a speech this week by Arkansas junior Sen. Tom Cotton (R), who told the Heritage Foundation in Washington that from his perspective the aim of Congress is not to ensure the nuclear negotiations succeed, but simply to end them.

“Certain voices call for congressional restraint, urging Congress not to act now lest Iran walk away from the negotiating table,” Senator Cotton said in his talk Tuesday. “But the end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of congressional action, it is very much an intended consequence.”

Cotton went on to demand an end to “all appeasement, conciliation, and concessions toward Iran,” adding that the US should immediately replace “sham negotiations” with a policy goal of “regime change in Iran.”

Senators Kirk and Menendez say the fact their bill’s sanctions would only take effect if Iran fails to reach a deal in June is proof the legislation aims to enhance the prospects of diplomacy succeeding in verifiably blocking Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

The Senate Banking Committee is set to take up the sanctions bill Tuesday. Among those testifying at the hearing will be Mark Dubowitz, executive director of Washington’s Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who argues that the legislation would give the US and its allies the leverage to negotiate a better deal with Iran. 

“The only times Iran has halted its nuclear program is when it has been under pressure,” he says.

But Obama noted in Friday’s press conference that the interim deal reached with Iran stipulates that no new sanctions are to be approved while negotiations are under way. Passage of new sanctions, even if not taking immediate effect, would allow Iran “to assert that the US ‘blew up the deal.’ ”

He added there would likely be “sympathy around the world to that view,” particularly from China and Russia, both part of the talks, and other countries that have adhered to the sanctions in place and cut oil purchases from Iran. 

Obama said the talks have perhaps only a 50 percent chance of succeeding even without the setback of new sanctions, and warned that being viewed as the spoiler in the negotiations could come back to haunt the US.

Saying that with failure of the talks “the risk of military conflict is heightened,” Obama said the US could find itself alone when the moment came to take action against an advancing Iranian nuclear program.

The US “may not be able to build a coalition of world leaders,” he said, if the perception sets in that “we were not serious in negotiations.”

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