Supporters of tough sanctions on Iran hailed the publication of a letter from 83 members of the U.S. Senate to President Obama calling on him to negotiate a deal with the Islamist regime that would preclude any chance that it could gain a nuclear weapon. The letter said that any agreement reached with Iran must deny it the right to uranium enrichment, dismantle its enrichment and nuclear military research facilities as well as its plutonium plant, and be subjected to the kind of inspections that would prevent it from evading detection of violations and receive no further sanctions relief until the other terms are satisfied. AIPAC praised it as an “overwhelming demonstration by the U.S. Senate of its determination to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability.”
But those who are dismissing the letter as the last gasp of a once formidable congressional coalition on behalf of sanctions on Iran are right. As the Al Monitor crowed in the headline of its article on the letter, what had happened was not so much a reaffirmation of principle but recognition that Congress had given the president “a window for Iran talks.” The terms laid down in the letter for an Iran nuclear deal are sufficient to stop Tehran. But the amorphous language it employs about what would happen if the agreement the administration produces with Iran falls short of that standard left considerable doubt as to whether failure would result in the passage of the crippling sanctions that the Senate tried but failed to pass earlier this year. Combined with the weaker language of a similar Iran letter signed by 395 members of the House of Representatives, the administration will interpret these developments as a green light to pursue a deal with Iran that will fall considerably short of the standard set in the Senate letter.
It was no accident that the overwhelming bipartisan turnout for the Senate letter had one significant omission: Majority Leader Harry Reid. While Reid had previously been a stalwart supporter of AIPAC and the pro-Israel community, the majority leader was able to exercise an effective veto on further Iran sanctions legislation this year. Reid’s opposition combined with a threat of a presidential veto of new sanctions on Iran sent many Democrats running for cover, despite the fact that 58 members of the Senate had endorsed the bill.
What happened this year surprised many in the pro-Israel community who assumed that a bipartisan coalition in favor of tougher sanctions on Iran could not be stopped. With Democrat Robert Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, championing the bill and a clear majority of the Senate ready to vote for legislation that had already been passed last year by the House, opponents seemed outgunned.
The new sanctions would have tightened the noose around Iran’s still booming international oil sales, but they would not have gone into effect until the next stage of diplomacy had clearly failed. Yet even that was too much for President Obama, who claimed that even sanctions that were based on a hypothetical would “break faith” with his Iranian partners. The administration, which had fought the sanctions that brought Iran to the table tooth and nail in his first term, wanted nothing that would strengthen the hands of the Western negotiators in the P5+1 talks.
The refusal to even contemplate more sanctions has sent a message to Iran that they have little to fear if they stand their ground in the talks and insist on retaining their nuclear program. The Senate letter won’t change their minds. They already know the president will ignore the Senate’s advice on acceptable terms for a nuclear deal since the interim agreement signed by Secretary of State Kerry last November already flouted those principles by tacitly recognizing an Iranian right to enrichment and beginning the process by which international sanctions will start to unravel. The failure to include language that would ensure that Congress would pass the additional sanctions if the deal fails to meet those standards tells Obama and the Iranians the letter can be safely deposited in the circular file and forgotten.
Those worried about an administration push for diplomacy that seems more like a drive for détente with Iran than an effort to stop their nuclear program should take no comfort from these congressional letters. What has just happened is the end of an important fight that ended in defeat for the forces most concerned with averting the peril of an Iranian bomb. The president has been given all the time he needs to reach a deal with Iran that will keep his promise to halt their nuclear quest. If, as is most likely, he breaks his promise, it will be up to Congress to take up the issue again and not be talked out of doing the right thing by a president who is willing to do anything to avoid accountability on this vital issue.