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Schumer’s Iran Sanctions Test

Is there hope for passage of new sanctions on Iran? If there is, it will be thanks to New York Senator Charles Schumer, who is defying President Obama and other members of the Senate Democratic leadership by supporting the bill proposed by fellow Democrat Bob Menendez and Republican Mark Kirk. Schumer spoke up for the bill on Meet the Press on Sunday with some blunt talk about Iran:

Well, look, there are many of us, Democrats and Republicans, in this Senate who believe the best way to avoid war and get around to give up nuclear weapons is by ratcheting up sanctions, not by reducing them. The Iranians didn’t come to the table out of the goodness of their heart. This administration still labels them a terrorist organization–the supreme leader Khomeini is still pulling the strings. And only tough sanctions will get them to give up. Now, look, I give the president credit for talking. I don’t agree with some on the hard line who say no talking until they give up everything. But the bottom line is very simple. It’s pretty logical that it’s sanctions, tough sanctions that brought them to the table. If they think they can ease up on the sanctions without getting rid of their nuclear capabilities, they’re– they’re going to do that. So we have to be tough. And the legislation we put in says to the Iranians, if you don’t come to an agreement after six months and the president can extend it to a year, the sanctions are going to toughen up. … I think that will make them negotiate better and give up more.

The stand has earned Schumer fulsome praise from supporters of Israel as well as those in the media who are reading from the foreign-policy establishment’s appeasement hymnal on the subject. The New York Daily News rewarded Schumer with an editorial titled “Hang Tough Chuck” in which they rightly lauded such “stout-hearted Democrats” for “defying” President Obama. I agree with both Schumer and the News but those pinning their hopes for the sanctions bill on Schumer’s intrepid stand may wind up disappointed. If Schumer is serious about really standing up to the president the bill may have a chance to pass and set up a dramatic confrontation with the president that could influence the outcome of the negotiations with Iran. But it’s also entirely possible that he is counting on the president’s veto threat and the opposition to the proposal from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Banking Committee chair Tim Johnson and other leading Democrats to save him from any real danger of a serious battle with Obama.

Let’s first state that Schumer’s willingness to at least speak up on the need for more Iran sanctions is a valuable contribution to the debate on the issue. He’s entirely right that a new bill with tougher measures would actually strengthen the president’s hand in negotiations with Iran. If the administration really wants to hold Tehran’s feet to the fire, the bill would, along with the existing sanctions and the considerable military and economic leverage the West holds over the Islamist regime, be more than enough to force them to give up their nuclear ambitions. The fact that the president is so angry about the prospect of putting more pressure on Iran during talks that Tehran’s envoys are already stalling is highly suspicious. The anxiety in the White House and the State Department about even raising the question of Iran’s missile programs, support for terror, and its demonizing of Israel raises the question that Washington’s intent may be to promote détente with Iran rather than to bring it line.

But our applause for Schumer’s stand needs to be tempered by the knowledge that his statements may be more for show than substance. So long as Reid and Johnson are backing Obama’s play on Iran, the odds are against getting a vote on the Menendez-Kirk bill. And if Obama is really determined to veto it, it is highly unlikely that there are 67 votes available for an override in the Senate (though there may well be a two-thirds majority for more sanctions in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives). Safe in the knowledge that the measure has no chance, all Schumer may be doing is a little grandstanding in order to shore up his reputation as a friend of Israel that was damaged by his support for Chuck Hagel last winter.

However, if Schumer were as determined as he would like us to believe on this issue, he could cause a great deal of trouble for the president. As the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, Schumer could call in some markers from his colleagues and maybe even persuade Reid, who has strong ties to the pro-Israel community, to allow a vote that would force Obama to make good on his veto threat. Perhaps the president isn’t bluffing about the veto, but he would also be loath to defend the Iranians in this manner.

If Schumer does help put the president in the corner on Iran, he will have earned the praise he’s currently getting. But if not, his talk about on Iran will turn out to be just that. “Hanging tough” means more than saying something on Meet the Press.



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