Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iran sanctions

Boehner’s Invite: To Bibi or Not to Bibi

The drama surrounding House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress about sanctions on Iran got a little more complicated today. But while the timing of the event was moved, the controversy over the visit continued to obscure the debate over the real issue: the president’s antipathy to any actions that might upset Iran. Thus, rather than put the White House on the defensive as Boehner hoped it would, the announcement about Netanyahu served to distract the media from what otherwise might have been the story of the day: the fact that Democratic Senator Robert Menendez aptly characterized the administration’s position on sanctions as something that “sounds like talking points coming out of Tehran.”

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The drama surrounding House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress about sanctions on Iran got a little more complicated today. But while the timing of the event was moved, the controversy over the visit continued to obscure the debate over the real issue: the president’s antipathy to any actions that might upset Iran. Thus, rather than put the White House on the defensive as Boehner hoped it would, the announcement about Netanyahu served to distract the media from what otherwise might have been the story of the day: the fact that Democratic Senator Robert Menendez aptly characterized the administration’s position on sanctions as something that “sounds like talking points coming out of Tehran.”

Faced with criticism for accepting the invite without consulting with the administration, the date of the event was pushed back from February 11 to early March when it will coincide with the annual AIPAC Conference in Washington. But anyone who thinks that this will cool down the tensions that had arisen between the President Obama and the Israeli government is wrong. The White House made a point of saying today that the president would not meet with Netanyahu while he was on this visit to the United States. This is a snub that is consistent with past practices about foreign leaders on the eve of their own elections (as Netanyahu will be prior to the March Knesset election) but also one that sent a clear message about Obama’s disdain for the prime minister.

Meanwhile, the debate over whether it was appropriate for Boehner to bring in Netanyahu and wise for the Israeli to accept the invite continues.

In defense of Boehner, the idea that he is the first speaker of the house to conduct his own foreign policy doesn’t hold water. His predecessor Nancy Pelosi visited Syria despite the opposition of the Bush administration and sent an unfortunate signal of congressional indifference the crimes of the Assad regime.

Nor is it fair to treat Netanyahu’s apparent desire to intervene in an internal American debate about sanctions as a unique event. After all, just last week British Prime Minister David Cameron said he had called several U.S. senators to lobby them to vote against more sanctions. If Cameron can try to persuade senators to back the president’s stand against pressure on Iran, it is not reasonable to pretend that it is a major breach of protocol for Netanyahu to give Congress his opinions on the issue when they have invited him to address a joint session.

Nevertheless, one has to question whether it is wise for Netanyahu to accept an invitation that clearly involves him in a tug-of-war between the GOP leadership and the president.

It is true that Iran is not, strictly speaking, a partisan issue. Large numbers of Democrats, in both the House and the Senate, lined up to support increased sanctions last year before they were torpedoed by then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Moreover, Menendez’s decision to directly challenge Obama on Iran in a face-to-face confrontation last week at a Senate Democratic conference shows that there are a lot of Democrats who are appalled by the president’s clear preference for détente with Iran instead of pressuring it to give up its nukes.

Boehner and others might have hoped that Netanyahu’s eloquence on the issue and deft American political touch would help turn the tide on the sanctions debate and help bring in large numbers of Democrats to build a veto-proof majority for the bill co-sponsored by Menendez and Republican Mark Kirk.

But unfortunately Boehner’s invitation has made Netanyahu the issue rather than Obama’s indefensible stance against a measure that would aid rather than hurt diplomacy. Leaving aside the uncertain political implications of yet another spat with the White House on Netanyahu’s reelection prospects, unlike almost every previous conflict between the two leaders, this one cannot be described as one that Obama picked. Though it is in the best interests of Israel, its moderate Arab neighbors, and the world for Congress to act to give Iran a reason to avoid stonewalling the West in the nuclear talks, this move can be represented, fairly or unfairly, as going beyond the normal behind-the-scenes lobbying that Israel and other allied countries always do.

Netanyahu has often been unfairly criticized for stoking conflict with Obama when, in fact, most of the time he has been on the receiving end of provocations and cheap shots from an administration bent on undermining him as well as downgrading the alliance with Israel. But in this case, Netanyahu has stepped into something that will do him and his cause very little good.

Foes of Israel have often sought to cast conflicts between Washington and Jerusalem as personal feuds between presidents and prime ministers, something that dates back to the effort to get the Senate to choose “Reagan or Begin” in the debate over the sale of AWACS airplanes to Saudi Arabia. In this case, that’s a crude distortion of clear differences between an administration that has abandoned its principles on Iran and Israeli government that is trying to remind Congress of its duty to act to safeguard the security of the Middle East. But if the perception that Netanyahu is allying himself with Boehner allows Obama to peel off a few weak-willed pro-Israel but partisan Democrats, that will be enough to sustain the president’s veto– especially when sanctions advocates might have had the votes anyway. Though pro-Israel activists are celebrating Netanyahu’s decision to accept the invitation in the belief that his rhetoric will turn the tide on sanctions, this was an unforced error on Israel’s part. If they are to prevail, they need to change the conversation from one about an Obama-Netanyahu feud to the facts about the sanctions debate that Menendez is trying to bring to the public’s attention.

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Intelligence Agencies Can’t Have Their Own Foreign Policies

Yesterday, Eli Lake and Josh Rogin, that indispensable team of foreign-policy reporters, wrote in Bloomberg View that Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency had “gone rogue” and was actively seeking to undermine its government’s stand on Iran sanctions. Today, a denial was issued by the head of the spy agency, Tamir Pardo, who said in a statement that he never told U.S. senators visiting Israel that he opposes additional sanctions on Iran. What’s going on here? As the fight between the Obama administration and congressional advocates of more sanctions on Iran heats up, the injection of this “rogue” element into the discussion tells us more about the political implications of this battle, both in the Senate and in Israel, than it does about the merits of the issue.

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Yesterday, Eli Lake and Josh Rogin, that indispensable team of foreign-policy reporters, wrote in Bloomberg View that Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency had “gone rogue” and was actively seeking to undermine its government’s stand on Iran sanctions. Today, a denial was issued by the head of the spy agency, Tamir Pardo, who said in a statement that he never told U.S. senators visiting Israel that he opposes additional sanctions on Iran. What’s going on here? As the fight between the Obama administration and congressional advocates of more sanctions on Iran heats up, the injection of this “rogue” element into the discussion tells us more about the political implications of this battle, both in the Senate and in Israel, than it does about the merits of the issue.

The first thing to understand about the sanctions debate is that the administration is desperate to stop the adoption of more sanctions. That’s not because, as the president claims, they will hurt the cause of diplomacy. That is an illogical, indeed, indefensible, assertion since the bill proposed by Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez would only strengthen the president’s hand in the talks over the future of Iran’s nuclear program. If Iran really believed there would be serious consequences for its failure to agree to a deal (the sanctions would only go into effect once the talks failed), it would be more, not less likely to make a deal that might, in contrast to the interim deal signed in November 2013, actually halt their progress toward a bomb. But since Obama’s objective is clearly a new détente with the Islamist regime, his priority is keeping its leaders happy, not backing them into corner and forcing them to surrender their nuclear assets.

Thus, Israel’s interest in Congress adopting a new round of sanctions is clear. Why then are some people in its legendary spy agency speaking as if the Jewish state ought to agree with Obama’s stance? Again, it’s complicated. Israel’s army and intelligence establishment is as divided by politics as the rest of the country. Many in the upper echelon of the Mossad clearly dislike Netanyahu and have sought to undermine him in the past, particularly when a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities seemed to be more of a possibility in 2011 and 2012. That opposition was based more on the preference on the part of some of the spies for more covert activities as opposed to the overt use of force and not because they think Iran wasn’t a deadly threat to both Israel and the West. Similarly, today there are some disagreements as to whether diplomacy can or will succeed.

But the willingness of someone in the Mossad to deliver a message to visiting senators that contradicted the stand of their government is more a matter of the antipathy some there feel for the prime minister than to a belief that the threat of more sanctions will somehow scuttle diplomacy.

By the same token, the floating of this story is more about the effort of the administration and senators who oppose the Kirk-Menendez bill to halt its momentum. Among those under suspicion for trying to sandbag it are Senator Bob Corker, the new Republican chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, who is floating his own bill about Iran that wrongly ignores the need for more sanctions but which rightly tries to obligate the president to bring any new deal with Iran to Congress for approval. The competition between the two bills is, however, helping the administration oppose both of them but, not for the first time, Senate cloakroom intrigue appears to be taking precedence over the best interests of the nation and international security.

But the real danger at the heart of this tempest in a teapot is the fact that some in the intelligence field think their expertise entitles them to run freelance foreign-policy operations in opposition to their government’s policies.

Those members of the Mossad who are playing this game are not alone. Senior U.S. intelligence officials did the same thing in 2007 when they wrote and then leaked a National Intelligence Estimate about Iran’s nuclear program that made the astounding claim that Tehran had ceased working toward building a bomb, an assertion that contradicted the official stand of the Bush administration at the time. As it turned out the NIE was dead wrong and the details of the current talks about the extent of its infrastructure and stockpiles prove this. Like the Mossad leak this week, the chance to undermine Bush’s efforts to build support for sanctions against Iran or even the possibility of using force was too tempting for some intelligence personnel who despised the president.

But whatever you think about sanctions or Iran’s nuclear threat, the willingness of some intelligence workers to go around the government is not something that should be tolerated. Such leaks are not a case of whistleblowers calling attention to corruption. Rather, this is an attempt to circumvent the normal workings of democracy. When either spooks or soldiers try to shake loose of civilian supervision, for whatever reason, the system totters. No intelligence agency or a faction within one in a democracy can have its own foreign policy. That is the business of elected officials. If those officials don’t listen to the intelligence people, the latter can resign and bring their complaints to the people. But they may not operate as a government within a government if democracy is to prevail.

To its credit, the Mossad has now walked back the efforts of its “rogue” element and presented a united front with the Cabinet. The debate about sanctions can proceed and be decided, as it should, on the merits of the issue rather than internal Israeli politics or senatorial feuds. But no matter what happens, both Israelis and Americans should be worried about the willingness of spies to try and make or break the governments they’re supposed to serve.

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Netanyahu Needs to Tread Carefully on Congress Invite and Sanctions Debate

There wasn’t much doubt that the Obama administration was already rooting hard for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s defeat in his country’s March elections. But the long-running feud between Obama and Netanyahu is about to heat up even more. Speaker of the House John Boehner’s invitation for the prime minister to address a joint session of Congress on February 11 will set the stage for a renewed joust between the leaders with the fate of a bill calling for tougher sanctions on Iran that is opposed by the White House hanging in the balance. It’s not clear whether Netanyahu’s overt intervention in the sanctions debate will help rally Congress to pass a sanctions bill with a large enough majority to override the veto of the measure President Obama promised last night in his State of the Union speech. It also remains to be seen whether heightened tensions between the two governments will help or hurt the prime minister’s efforts to win reelection at home.

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There wasn’t much doubt that the Obama administration was already rooting hard for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s defeat in his country’s March elections. But the long-running feud between Obama and Netanyahu is about to heat up even more. Speaker of the House John Boehner’s invitation for the prime minister to address a joint session of Congress on February 11 will set the stage for a renewed joust between the leaders with the fate of a bill calling for tougher sanctions on Iran that is opposed by the White House hanging in the balance. It’s not clear whether Netanyahu’s overt intervention in the sanctions debate will help rally Congress to pass a sanctions bill with a large enough majority to override the veto of the measure President Obama promised last night in his State of the Union speech. It also remains to be seen whether heightened tensions between the two governments will help or hurt the prime minister’s efforts to win reelection at home.

In his announcement of the plan, Speaker Boehner left no doubt about whether the invitation to Netanyahu was a shot fired over the bow of the White House. As Politico reported:

“You may have seen that on Friday, the president warned us not to move ahead with sanctions on Iran, a state sponsor of terror,” Boehner said in a meeting of Republicans Wednesday morning. “His exact message to us was, ‘Hold your fire.’ He expects us to stand idly by and do nothing while he cuts a bad deal with Iran. Two words: Hell no! … We’re going to do no such thing.

“I am specifically asking him to address Congress on the threats posed by radical Islam and Iran,” Boehner said in the meeting. “America and Israel have always stood together in shared cause and common ideals, and now we must rise to the moment again. Let’s send a clear message to the White House — and the world — about our commitment to Israel and our allies.”

In the same breath Boehner both denied that he was trying to offend the president while taking a shot at Obama’s characterization of the issue in his State of the Union address:

“Congress can make this decision on its own,” Boehner said. “I don’t believe I’m poking anyone in the eye. There is a serious threat that exists in the world, and the president last night kind of papered over it. And the fact is that there needs to be a more serious conversation in America about how serious the threat is from radical Islamic jihadists, and the threat posed by Iran.”

The administration has been working hard to try to prevent the Republican-controlled Congress from passing increased sanctions on Tehran that would go into effect only after the current talks (currently in the third overtime period, violating Obama’s pledge to keep them finite in length) failed. Though the threat of future sanctions would strengthen his hand in the negotiations, the president wants no part of anything that would upset his Iranian partners since his goal appears to be a new detente with the regime rather than actually stopping them from becoming a threshold nuclear power. Both Obama and the Iranians are united in their opposition to more pressure on the latter, an astonishing and illogical position for Washington to put itself into. And that is where Israel comes in.

Though Iran’s nuclear program is a threat to the entire world, it is of particular importance to the Israelis who have been threatened with annihilation by Tehran. The Israeli government is therefore understandably supportive of measures that would place more pressure on Iran to make concessions to ensure that the nuclear threat is ended rather than merely postponed.

But the spectacle of a foreign leader addressing Congress and urging it to adopt sanctions that the administration opposes would create an uncomfortable situation for both countries. The White House is already up in arms over what appears to be an Israeli acceptance of Boehner’s offer without first consulting with the administration. Congress may well carp back that the president has been ignoring them on a host of issues as he seeks to govern on his own authority rather than adhere to the Constitution. Yet as much as the administration has made its antipathy for Netanyahu clear to the Israeli public, a direct Israeli intervention on a congressional vote has risks as well as benefits.

Advocates of sanctions may already have a veto-proof majority for more sanctions. Netanyahu’s involvement in the debate might provide fodder for anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists as well as give pro-Obama Democrats a reason to boycott the vote even if they would normally be inclined to back more sanctions.

Then there is the question of whether Netanyahu’s invitation will help him in his own elections.

Throughout his last two terms in office, Netanyahu has consistently benefitted politically from the administration’s ham-handed efforts to pressure Israel especially when it comes to the status of Jerusalem. Israelis are right to resent Americans for telling them what to do with their capital. But Netanyahu must carefully calibrate his response to this situation.

As much as Netanyahu might wish to encourage the vote for sanctions, he also doesn’t wish to give the impression that relations between the two countries are completely broken. With his Labor-Hatnua opponents claiming that they know a better way to deal with both the Palestinians and Washington, an open breach and Netanyahu being labeled a meddler in American domestic politics is not what he needs to either build support for sanctions or get reelected.

The president’s stance on sanctions and the nuclear negotiations is weak and dangerous and his worries about offending the Iranians have already undermined his shaky credibility on the issue. That’s why Americans would do well to listen Netanyahu on the question of the threat from Iran and the need for the West to avoid capitulating to the Islamist regime. But a Netanyahu speech to Congress timed to coincide or overlap with the debate on sanctions would be a mistake.

Sanctions advocates can win this vote on the merits and need no Israeli intervention to win the day. While Netanyahu would savor a repeat of his triumphal May 2011 speech to Congress that was repeatedly interrupted for applause and which was seen as a insult to Obama, next month might not be the right moment for another try.

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Iran Agrees With Obama: Don’t Pressure Us.

Last Friday, President Obama and British Prime Minister Cameron appealed to Congress at a joint press conference to back off on plans for more sanctions on Iran. It’s not clear whether any but the most fervent Obama loyalists were listening to their pleas but there was one party that heartily endorsed their position: Iran. As Agence France Presse noted, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif said on Saturday night that the talks would succeed if only the “Western countries” would “stop with the pressure” on the Islamist regime. That quote would be considered comical if it didn’t seem to dovetail so nicely with the president’s approach, which seems to prioritize the illusory chances for détente with Tehran while seeking to prevent Congress from strengthening his hands in the negotiations.

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Last Friday, President Obama and British Prime Minister Cameron appealed to Congress at a joint press conference to back off on plans for more sanctions on Iran. It’s not clear whether any but the most fervent Obama loyalists were listening to their pleas but there was one party that heartily endorsed their position: Iran. As Agence France Presse noted, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif said on Saturday night that the talks would succeed if only the “Western countries” would “stop with the pressure” on the Islamist regime. That quote would be considered comical if it didn’t seem to dovetail so nicely with the president’s approach, which seems to prioritize the illusory chances for détente with Tehran while seeking to prevent Congress from strengthening his hands in the negotiations.

Fortunately, the Senate doesn’t appear to be listening to the president’s warnings or Zarif. A bipartisan bill proposing new sanctions on Iran sponsored by Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez has already been drafted (the text can be read here) and will be submitted to the Senate Banking Committee. The key point to remember about this proposal is that the bill doesn’t immediately impose increased sanctions but rather holds them in abeyance until after the current talks fail. All they would do then is to remind Iran of the consequences of their failure to negotiate a deal that even Obama could accept.

Why, then, is the president opposing a measure that would only make an outcome that he supports more rather than less likely? The only answer is that he genuinely seems to fear ruffling the feathers of Iran’s Islamist dictators. Though his rhetoric on Iran’s nuclear threat was always exemplary, he has discarded the tough talk that characterized his statements about the issue when he was running for reelection in 2012 when he vowed that any deal would result in the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program. That went out the window with the interim nuclear deal signed in November 2013 when the West tacitly recognized Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and allowed its infrastructure and stockpile to stay in place. That agreement was supposed to be followed by a strictly limited six months of talks, but they have since been extended twice with no end in sight. Yet even now, a year after he successfully persuaded Congress (with the help of former Majority Leader Harry Reid who buried an earlier Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill despite the support of a veto-proof majority of both houses), Obama is still singing the same tired tune about not alienating the Iranians and Western allies who are uncomfortable with more sanctions.

But since the president’s goal appears to be a warming of relations with Iran, he thinks anything that pushes them too hard will make it more difficult to conclude even another weak deal. This talk about offending the sensitive feelings of the ayatollahs rings false. As the Washington Post noted in an editorial endorsing more sanctions, the president’s pleas for more patience with the Islamist regime comes not only after the Iranians announced the construction of two new nuclear plants but also after the regime sent the case of Post Tehran bureau chief Jason Rezaiain to a Revolutionary Court for “processing” on some bogus charges that have yet to be announced. Rezaiain has been imprisoned for six months. But as the Post correctly notes, if this unjust treatment of an American citizen is not considered enough of a provocation for Washington to cut off talks with Tehran, then it is impossible to credibly argue that a proposal for potential sanctions would make an agreement impossible.

Nor is there any weight to the argument that the president can always ask for more sanctions if the talks fail.

First, given his decision to keep extending the talks despite his pledges not to do so, there seems little chance that he will ever concede failure and respond appropriately to the Iranian refusal to give up their nuclear ambitions. It should also be noted that despite the president’s boasting of having imposed the sanctions on Iran that brought them to the table, the Obama administration has consistently opposed proposals for restrictions on doing business with the Islamist regime including the ones that are now in place.

So long as this president is more concerned with the illusory chance to, as he stated last month, “let Iran get right with the world” than with preventing them from becoming, at best, a threshold nuclear power, Tehran knows he will never pressure them in a way that will convince them that the West can’t be waited out. Until Zarif starts fearing pressure rather than endorsing Obama’s opposition to it, the Iranian threat won’t be defused. That’s why Congress must act now. Menendez stood up and challenged the president on Iran policy in a meeting with Democratic senators last week. With veto-proof majorities for more sanctions ready to vote for it, the rest of the Senate should show the same courage. The Kirk-Menendez bill should be passed as soon as possible.

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Menendez Stands Up to Obama on Iran. Will the GOP?

As the Republican leadership of Congress ponders whether they will challenge President Obama’s positions on a variety of issues, one member of the other party has just given them an object lesson in standing up to the White House. The question now is whether, for all of their brave talk about not being bulldozed by Obama, the GOP can muster the same courage to oppose him that was shown by a liberal Democrat.

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As the Republican leadership of Congress ponders whether they will challenge President Obama’s positions on a variety of issues, one member of the other party has just given them an object lesson in standing up to the White House. The question now is whether, for all of their brave talk about not being bulldozed by Obama, the GOP can muster the same courage to oppose him that was shown by a liberal Democrat.

Senator Robert Menendez was the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee when Democrats ran the Senate and is now its ranking minority member and is on most issues a reliable liberal vote. He was present when, during the course of the Senate Democrats Issue Conference, President Obama denigrated those who favored the passage of new, tougher sanctions on Iran. Not satisfied with claiming that they were wrong and that if they succeeded, it would result in the world blaming the United States and not Iran for the collapse of the talks, he then went further. Obama then said sanctions advocates were not merely ignoring the long view of the issue. He said they were merely seeking to appease donors to make short-term political gains.

When he heard this, Menendez, who has been the foremost advocate of increased sanctions on Iran, was reportedly seated at a table in front of the podium. He then rose to his feet and told the president he “took personal offense” at his remarks. Observers told the New York Times that what followed was “a forceful exchange.”

By all accounts, Menendez was polite and didn’t speak in anger. But he was not afraid to literally stand up and tell Obama that he was dead wrong about sanctions and their potential impact on the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran. Neither side backed down but Obama left the conference knowing that a key Democrat could not be intimidated.

This is important not just because it shows that Obama faces vocal dissent against his attempt to appease Iran from Democrats. It is significant because it happened at a moment when the country is waiting to see whether the Republican who succeeded Menendez as Foreign Affairs Committee chair will have the guts to follow his example.

Senator Bob Corker has been deliberately ambiguous about whether he will push the bill co-sponsored by Menendez and Republican Mark Kirk that is currently being readied for presentation. At times Corker seems reluctant to directly challenge Obama on Iran.

Presidents deserve a degree of deference from Congress on foreign policy but the conduct of this administration on Iran cries out for Congressional intervention. Step by step the president’s original promises about any nuclear deal with Iran requiring the elimination of its program have unraveled. At every point in the negotiations, the U.S. has given up when Iran said no. In November 2013 that led to a weak agreement that allegedly froze Tehran’s nuclear progress in place but in practice did more to encourage the Iranians to believe that they had no reason to concede anything that would compromise their ability to become, at the very least, a threshold nuclear power.

If Menendez has no confidence in Obama’s intentions about Iran, he has good reason. He remembers very well that the sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table were first watered down and then passed over the president’s objections. After the interim deal was signed, efforts to pass a bill that would toughen those sanctions if the next round of negotiations failed, were headed off by Obama’s veto threats, backed up former Majority Leader Harry Reid’s ability to stall any bill he didn’t like.

But any arguments that Obama had to be trusted on the talks have gone out the window as his pledge to limit the negotiations to a finite period were abandoned as the talks were extended twice with no consequences and the U.S. showing not the slightest intention to hold the Iranians accountable for stonewalling the process. As was the case during the prelude to the interim agreement, the U.S. is retreating to the point where Iran feels it has every confidence that it can hold onto all of its nuclear infrastructure and fuel stockpile while still getting sanctions relief.

The president said today in a joint news conference with British Prime David Cameron that the Iranians had no doubt that Obama could get Congress to pass more sanctions if the talks failed. That’s true. But that’s not what the new sanctions are trying to fix. The problem is that the Iranians have been given good reason to believe that Obama’s zeal for a deal is such that he will never concede that the talks have failed and will either let them go on indefinitely or will conclude a bad deal that does not prevent the Islamist regime from eventually realizing its nuclear ambition.

New sanctions will remind both Iran and Obama that the goal of these talks is not to create a new détente between the two countries, as the president seems to think is desirable, but to force the Islamists to give up any chance of getting a bomb in the foreseeable future.

Menendez rightly understand that it is the Senate’s duty to act expeditiously to ensure that Tehran understands that it will be held accountable for their so-far successful effort to run out the clock on the nuclear talks. He also knows that the drift toward Iran détente must be halted now before it is too late. That Obama would stoop so low as to question the motives of his opponents on this issue is a sign that he is worried about losing the upcoming fight over sanctions.

Senate Republicans must take heart from Menendez’s example. While they cannot fight every battle to the last ditch with Obama, this is one on which they can count on significant Democratic support. Corker should take up Menendez’s challenge. If he doesn’t, the Republican leadership should exert its influence to see to it that he doesn’t shame his party and fail the country.

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The Senate Should Wipe the Smile From Zarif’s Face

Secretary of State John Kerry returned to Geneva this week where he met again with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to discuss the ongoing effort to forge a final agreement on that country’s nuclear program. But not even the secretary of his State Department spin masters tried to represent this latest effort to cajole the Iranians into giving the Obama administration a much-needed diplomatic triumph as anything other than just one more scene in a long-running play directed by the Islamist regime. That the Iranians have the patience and the confidence to wait out the administration until it is willing to give them whatever they want is no longer in question. But as Congress prepares to consider new sanctions legislation that could strengthen the hands of Western negotiators, the spectacle of Kerry scurrying to and from Geneva, in vain attempts to convince Zarif to play nicely while Iran proceeds with building new nuclear infrastructure projects, should only reinforce their resolve to stick to their guns despite threats of a presidential veto.

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Secretary of State John Kerry returned to Geneva this week where he met again with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to discuss the ongoing effort to forge a final agreement on that country’s nuclear program. But not even the secretary of his State Department spin masters tried to represent this latest effort to cajole the Iranians into giving the Obama administration a much-needed diplomatic triumph as anything other than just one more scene in a long-running play directed by the Islamist regime. That the Iranians have the patience and the confidence to wait out the administration until it is willing to give them whatever they want is no longer in question. But as Congress prepares to consider new sanctions legislation that could strengthen the hands of Western negotiators, the spectacle of Kerry scurrying to and from Geneva, in vain attempts to convince Zarif to play nicely while Iran proceeds with building new nuclear infrastructure projects, should only reinforce their resolve to stick to their guns despite threats of a presidential veto.

While Kerry was in Geneva, the Iranian media was trumpeting the fact that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced plans to construct two new nuclear power plants in the southern province of Bushehr. The supposed moderate claimed that this shows that Iran was only interested in peaceful uses of nuclear power, but the massive investment in nuclear infrastructure for a country with some of the largest oil reserves in the world is inherently suspicious. Western intelligence agencies have already conceded that they have little confidence about their ability to detect any secret military nuclear programs hidden throughout the country. The decision to build more expensive nuclear plants at a time when the country is financially pressed demonstrates that their commitment to expanding their capability is about more than clean energy.

We can’t know exactly what the Iranians are up to in Bushehr. But the brazen nature of this effort while they continue to stall the Geneva talks speaks volumes about their belief that they can tell the Americans anything they like and still expect Kerry to keep crawling back to see them in the vain hope that next time they’ll gratify his zeal for a deal.

Indeed, by talking about the need to pick up the pace of the talks, Zarif was teasing Kerry as if he was handing a ball of yarn to a kitten. As CBS News reported his remarks:

Zarif was coy when asked if he thought the deadline could be met and what particular issues were most vexing.

“We’ll see,” he said. “All issues are hard until you resolve them and all issues are easy if you resolve them,” he said. “I believe all of them are easy anyway.”

He’s right about that in the sense that since the prelude to the weak interim deal signed in November 2013, the Obama administration’s approach to resolving issues with Iran is to simply gradually concede all points to them. That’s how Iran got Kerry to tacitly recognize their right to enrich uranium and to allow them to hold onto their stockpile of nuclear fuel that could easily be re-activated and converted to use for a weapon in a breakout scenario. That’s also how they have managed to move the position of the U.S. from President Obama’s 2012 campaign pledge to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program to today’s laughable goal of lengthening a potential breakout period.

Zarif was also coy about whether he and Kerry could come to an agreement by the time the latest deadline for the end of the talks expires in July. But since two such deadlines have come and gone without this failure prompting Obama and Kerry to issue ultimatums to the Iranians, there is no reason for Zarif to think they will behave any differently in the future. He can merely wait for them to come to him. That means he thinks he can insist on a deal that will give an international seal of approval and end of sanctions while Iran is permitted to retain the infrastructure and capability to be a threshold nuclear power. Moreover, Zarif also has figured out that the president’s real goal is not so much an acceptable nuclear deal as a new détente with Iran. Since he knows the Americans fear offending him, that gives him the power to be as obdurate as he likes without fear of any consequences.

Obama and Kerry may seek to portray such a disastrous result as the best the West could get in much the same manner as the way they claimed the interim deal was an imperfect yet acceptable bargain. But what these talks desperately need is a change in the dynamic that will wipe that Cheshire cat smile off of Zarif’s face and inject some doubt into Tehran’s calculations about America’s willingness to swallow any Iranian demand or delay. Only more sanctions legislation will do that. The Senate should proceed accordingly.

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Senate Should Reject Power’s Lesson in Weak Iran Diplomacy

Yesterday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power spoke at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center in what was clearly intended as a shot fired over the bow of the new Republican Senate majority on the question of new sanctions on Iran. Any doubt about the purpose of the speech was reinforced by the presence of the majority leader after whom the public policy center is named. But Mitch McConnell and his Senate colleagues should ignore the ambassador’s attempt to pressure them to back off plans to toughen sanctions on the Islamist regime. In fact, rather than persuading them that the administration should be left to pursue détente with Tehran without congressional interference, her lecture should serve as a warning that they must act before President Obama’s foreign policy forfeits any chance of forestalling an Iranian bomb.

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Yesterday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power spoke at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center in what was clearly intended as a shot fired over the bow of the new Republican Senate majority on the question of new sanctions on Iran. Any doubt about the purpose of the speech was reinforced by the presence of the majority leader after whom the public policy center is named. But Mitch McConnell and his Senate colleagues should ignore the ambassador’s attempt to pressure them to back off plans to toughen sanctions on the Islamist regime. In fact, rather than persuading them that the administration should be left to pursue détente with Tehran without congressional interference, her lecture should serve as a warning that they must act before President Obama’s foreign policy forfeits any chance of forestalling an Iranian bomb.

Power’s case is the same one the administration has been making ever since it concluded a weak interim nuclear deal with Iran in November 2013. The administration threw away the considerable political, economic, and military leverage it held over Iran at the time in exchange for an agreement that tacitly recognized Iran’s right to enrich uranium and granted legitimacy to the country’s nuclear program while loosening sanctions on the regime. In exchange, Iran supposedly froze its nuclear progress and converted its stockpile of fuel to a non-active state. This was to be followed by final-status talks that were supposed to be finite in length and therefore prevent Iran from drawing out negotiations in the same way they’ve been stalling the West on this issue for a decade.

Armed with what he termed a diplomatic success, President Obama successfully headed off an attempt by majorities in both houses of Congress last year to tighten the sanctions in such a way as to strengthen the hand of Western negotiators. The message then was that such help was not needed and would only scare off an Iranian government that was thought to be tempted to end its isolation by giving up their nuclear ambitions.

A year later Power was selling the same bill of goods to McConnell and his caucus telling them that more sanctions will not only spook the Iranians but isolate the U.S. from its Western coalition partners. Give us more time, she asked, and if we fail to get Iran to agree to a satisfactory agreement, then you could pass more sanctions.

Some in the Republican caucus may be inclined to heed her advice. Senator Bob Corker, the new Foreign Relations Committee chair, has been sounding as if the last thing he wants is a confrontation with the administration on Iran. This is in marked contrast to the statements of his Democratic counterpart, Senator Bob Menendez, who has been doing a slow burn over administration policy on Iran for years. With the GOP and the White House set to clash over a host of domestic issues like immigration and ObamaCare, some senators may think deferring to the president’s foreign-policy prerogative is the safest play.

But they’d be wrong both in terms of policy and politics.

That’s because ever since they managed to persuade Obama and Secretary of State Kerry to bend to their dictates and sign an interim accord that jettisoned the president’s previous pledges on the issue, the Iranians have been acting as if they had the whip hand over the Americans, not the other way around. Far from moving closer to giving up their nuclear goal, they have stood their ground in the talks and the two sides remain far apart. They continue to insist that they will not give up their centrifuges and have stonewalled on their plutonium plant and refuse to discuss their ballistic missile program or allow United Nations inspectors into facilities where their military research is going on. The question of their support for terrorism isn’t even being raised.

Predictably, the administration has inched closer to the Iranian position, proposing preposterous compromises such as disconnecting the pipes between the centrifuges that could easily be reversed.

Even worse, rather than keep his pledge to hold the Iranians to a finite period of talks, the president has allowed two extensions that have turned a six-month period into a year and counting. There’s no indication that he will ever deliver an ultimatum to the Iranians to yield or face the cut off of talks and the increased sanctions that Power says are still on the table for consideration.

In other words, the administration has spent the last year giving a public clinic in incompetent, weak diplomacy that has strengthened the Iranian position and left many in Europe waiting impatiently for the end of the farce so they can forget about the nuclear question and go back to doing business with Tehran.

But it doesn’t take much insight or imagination for senators or the rest of us to read between the lines of Power’s speech as well as recent statements by the president and to understand that the purpose of his process stopped being about the nuclear threat a long time ago. Rather than the negotiations being aimed at fulfilling the president’s 2012 campaign pledge to force the end of Iran’s nuclear program (a promise that was thrown down the administration memory hole a long time ago), it is now focused on fostering détente between the U.S. and the Islamist regime.

If forcing the Iranians to come to their senses and give up their nukes were the goal, the president wouldn’t have any hesitation about passing and enforcing tougher sanctions that would altogether shut down Iran’s sale of oil. If it were, he’d be calling for them himself, especially at a time when the decline in oil prices should be increasing the West’s economic leverage over Tehran. Instead, the administration is looking to coddle the Iranians and insulate them against the consequences of their actions. Sanctions might make a deal that would not allow Iran to become a threshold a nuclear power a possibility. But if your objective is making nice with the ayatollahs, then putting your foot on their throats is not what you want to do.

The point is, Congress must act on sanctions if there is to be any hope of convincing the administration to get serious about stopping the nuclear threat as well as to scaring the Iranians into thinking they have more to worry about than the paper tiger in the Oval Office they’ve been schooling for the last six years. Tougher sanctions might give the diplomacy that Obama and Power believe in with religious-like faith a chance. It would also be a good way to foster bipartisan agreement since Menendez and many other Senate Democrats will probably join them.

McConnell had nothing to say about Power’s speech, but let’s hope he tells Corker not to be fooled by this lesson in how not to conduct a negotiation. If appeasement of Iran is to be stopped, it will have to start in the Senate.

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Obama Falls For Iran’s ‘Good Cop’ Routine

Since winning election in 2013, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has been accorded sympathetic treatment in the foreign press. That his moderation was largely a fictional construct didn’t matter. All that mattered was that Iran had replaced a cartoonlike villain—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—with someone who could be called a moderate. That was bad enough when it came to whitewashing the regime he fronted before the nuclear talks began. However, Rouhani’s fake identity is crucial to the effort to sell the West on the need to appease Iran by signing a deal that would fail to prevent it from becoming a threshold nuclear power. The key to Iran’s success in the talks is for the U.S. to fall for Rouhani’s pose as the good cop resisting the evil influence of the “bad cop” hardliners.

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Since winning election in 2013, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has been accorded sympathetic treatment in the foreign press. That his moderation was largely a fictional construct didn’t matter. All that mattered was that Iran had replaced a cartoonlike villain—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—with someone who could be called a moderate. That was bad enough when it came to whitewashing the regime he fronted before the nuclear talks began. However, Rouhani’s fake identity is crucial to the effort to sell the West on the need to appease Iran by signing a deal that would fail to prevent it from becoming a threshold nuclear power. The key to Iran’s success in the talks is for the U.S. to fall for Rouhani’s pose as the good cop resisting the evil influence of the “bad cop” hardliners.

Rouhani was the least extreme of the set of loyal Islamists who were allowed to run for president but his victory served the purposes of the country’s radical rulers. His pose of moderation has always been more about the need to sell the world a narrative about Iran being on the cusp of change. It didn’t matter that the election that he won was hardly democratic or that he has no real power, which remains firmly in the hands of the country’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Nor did anyone care that Rouhani has a long record as a faithful servant of the radical Islamist regime, including a stint at diplomacy after which he boasted of his ability to deceive the West on the nuclear issue. Indeed, the secret talks conducted by the Obama administration that led to the interim nuclear deal signed last November preceded Rouhani’s victory.

Rouhani’s election hasn’t moderated Iran’s behavior either at home or abroad. The country remains a brutal tyranny that punishes dissent, either political or religious, without mercy and spews anti-Semitic hate. It has not ceased to support terrorism abroad and has used its Hezbollah auxiliaries as well as the regime’s own forces to help ally Bashar Assad defend his reign of terror in Syria by slaughtering opponents. And it has continued to defy the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors who want to find out what’s going in its nuclear military research sites.

It is true that there are competing factions within Iran and some of them would like to see Rouhani and his friends fall. That has allowed credulous foreign journalists to buy into the narrative about the moderate Rouhani championing accommodation with the West while the hardliners seek to shut down the nuclear talks. This leads to articles like the one published in today’s New York Times that centers on Rouhani’s pledges to resist his opponents and fight for a nuclear deal that would end sanctions on Iran. Some within the regime are so distrustful of the West that even the sham of a détente with the United States is unacceptable to them.

But the problem with this narrative is that the two sides have the same goal: a nuclear Iran and a U.S. retreat from the region allowing the regime to exercise hegemony in a way that would destabilize and endanger U.S. allies.

Appeasing Iran sufficiently in order to allow Rouhani to tell his opponents that he had bested the U.S. would give President Obama an agreement that he could attempt to portray as a badly needed foreign-policy triumph. But what the president and his foreign-policy team miss in their zeal for a deal is that lifting sanctions and making Rouhani a hero in Iran won’t make that nation less murderous either at home or abroad. Iran’s failing economy and plunging oil prices give the president an opportunity to press the regime to make real concessions on the nuclear issue that would truly end the threat. But rather than risk a confrontation that would force it to give up their nuclear infrastructure, the president, with his press cheering section aiding his cause, seems more worried about helping Rouhani.

The good Iranian cop may have his differences with the bad ones that are closer in many ways to Khamenei. But the U.S. ought to be indifferent as to which Islamist faction rules in Tehran. Rouhani won’t bring freedom to Iran or give up its deadly foreign ambitions to undermine moderate Arab governments and to destroy Israel. Rather than worrying about his factional fights, U.S. negotiators should not be fooled by this transparent charade. But so long as Rouhani can count on Obama and friendly outlets like the Times to make his case for him, the chances that any deal reached will actually prevent Iran from eventually getting a bomb seem small.

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In Nuke Talks, Obama Still Iran’s Best Asset

For the first time since the Iran nuclear talks were extended for the second time last month, the United States and its allies will meet again with Tehran’s negotiators in Vienna on Wednesday. To listen to public statements from the Obama administration, the allied team will be there to insist on a deal that will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But the same factors that have tilted these negotiations in Iran’s direction throughout the process still seem to be pushing the outcome toward an agreement that will be touted as a desperately needed foreign-policy triumph for the administration. With both the French becoming more vocal about their dissatisfaction with America’s leadership in the talks and the Islamist regime making no secret of their unwillingness to make more concessions, the question facing the negotiators is not so much whether a deal is possible, but whether the U.S. is able to resist the temptation to continue giving ground to the Iranians in order to get a deal at virtually any price.

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For the first time since the Iran nuclear talks were extended for the second time last month, the United States and its allies will meet again with Tehran’s negotiators in Vienna on Wednesday. To listen to public statements from the Obama administration, the allied team will be there to insist on a deal that will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But the same factors that have tilted these negotiations in Iran’s direction throughout the process still seem to be pushing the outcome toward an agreement that will be touted as a desperately needed foreign-policy triumph for the administration. With both the French becoming more vocal about their dissatisfaction with America’s leadership in the talks and the Islamist regime making no secret of their unwillingness to make more concessions, the question facing the negotiators is not so much whether a deal is possible, but whether the U.S. is able to resist the temptation to continue giving ground to the Iranians in order to get a deal at virtually any price.

As the next round of talks begins, observers need to think back to the allies’ position prior to the signing of the interim deal to understand just how far the U.S. has retreated from its current perilous position. In 2012 when he was running for reelection, President Obama vowed during his foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney that any deal must end Iran’s nuclear program. The allies were similarly united behind a position that Iran had no right to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel under any circumstances and that its plutonium plant at Arak must be dismantled.

Since then, the U.S. has accepted the notion that Iran has the right to a nuclear program and that its infrastructure will remain largely in place no matter what the terms of an agreement might say. It has also tacitly recognized Iran’s right to enrichment while claiming that the low levels permitted freeze its progress toward a bomb even though everyone knows these restrictions can easily be reversed. The U.S. has also given every indication it will allow Iran to keep its centrifuges as well as showing no sign that it will press Tehran to give up its plutonium option or stop producing ballistic missiles whose only purpose would be to deliver nuclear warheads. Even worse, the administration seems to be giving up any effort to find out just how much progress the Iranians have made toward weaponizing their nuclear project or to force them to admit International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to get the answers to this vital question.

Based on the experience of the last year and a half of talking with Obama’s envoys, Iran’s negotiators know they only have to stand their ground and it’s only a matter of time until the Americans give in to their demands one by one until they get terms that will let them become a nuclear threshold power as well as lifting the economic sanctions that continue to cripple Iran’s economy.

That the Iranian people are clamoring for an end to the sanctions is clear. As the New York Times reported on Friday, anticipation of the collapse of the restrictions is the talk of Tehran. The eagerness of their would-be European trading partners is just as vocal. In theory, this desire to reconnect Iran to the global economy ought to give the U.S. the leverage to make the Iranians give up their nuclear ambitions. On top of that, the collapse of the price of oil should have Iran even more desperate and the position of the allies even stronger.

But the Iranians know whom they are dealing with. As has become increasingly clear in the last year in which the talks went into two overtime periods despite administration promises that the talks would be finite in length, President Obama’s goal is not so much to fulfill his campaign promise about the nuclear threat as it is to launch a new détente with the Iran. This is a crucial point since it not only makes him more reluctant to stick to Western demands about nuclear issues but makes it impossible for him to contemplate abandoning the negotiations. That means that the Iranians know the president isn’t even thinking, as he should be, of ratcheting up the economic pressure with tougher sanctions, or of making the Islamists fear the possibility that the U.S. would ever use force to ensure the threat is eliminated.

Under these conditions the chances of the U.S. negotiating a deal that could actually stop Iran from ever getting a bomb are slim and none. Instead, the only question remains how far the Iranians are willing to press the president to bend to their will in order to let him declare a victory and welcome this terrorist-sponsoring regime moving closer to regional hegemony as well as a nuclear weapon.

Rather than the renewed diplomacy being a signal for congressional critics from both parties of the president’s policy to pipe down, the new talks should encourage them to work harder to pass the sanctions the president claims he doesn’t need. Unless they act, the path to appeasement of Iran seems to be clear.

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Iran Cheating Debunks Biden, Kerry Boasts

Obama administration figures used the annual Saban Forum on Middle East issues in Washington this past weekend to launch their counter-offensive against efforts to pass new sanctions against Iran. Both Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at the event to tout the wisdom of the decision to allow the negotiations with the Islamist state to go into a second overtime period instead of the finite period they promised a year ago when they were extolling the virtues of a weak interim deal that we were told would soon be followed by an agreement that would end the nuclear threat. But Kerry’s talk of progress toward a deal and Biden’s stereotypical bombast about Iran not getting a bomb on this administration’s watch was given the lie by the report published today in Foreign Policy detailing American charges that Iran is already going on a spending spree buying material that could be used to produce nuclear-weapons grade plutonium for a bomb.

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Obama administration figures used the annual Saban Forum on Middle East issues in Washington this past weekend to launch their counter-offensive against efforts to pass new sanctions against Iran. Both Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at the event to tout the wisdom of the decision to allow the negotiations with the Islamist state to go into a second overtime period instead of the finite period they promised a year ago when they were extolling the virtues of a weak interim deal that we were told would soon be followed by an agreement that would end the nuclear threat. But Kerry’s talk of progress toward a deal and Biden’s stereotypical bombast about Iran not getting a bomb on this administration’s watch was given the lie by the report published today in Foreign Policy detailing American charges that Iran is already going on a spending spree buying material that could be used to produce nuclear-weapons grade plutonium for a bomb.

The Foreign Policy scoop discusses Iran’s efforts to violate international sanctions to purchase components that could be employed at their Arak plutonium plant at which last year’s interim deal compelled the regime to shut down nuclear activity. The allegations are found in a confidential report from a panel of experts that advises a United Nations Security Council committee that oversees compliance with sanctions. The findings showed a marked increase in procurement of equipment related to heavy water production in recent months.

This is significant in and of itself as evidence of Iran’s intention to push ahead toward a bomb on both uranium and plutonium based plants. But it is even more significant because one of the administration’s principle talking points against further sanctions is that the existing laws (to which the administration had to be dragged kicking and screaming) are not only working but that Iran isn’t cheating on them or the interim accord. The evidence of Iranian activity not only debunks these assurances, it also illustrates that U.S. intelligence about what Iran is doing, which is crucial to monitoring compliance with any further agreements on Iran’s part, may not be up to the task of discovering what is really going on in their nuclear facilities.

That all of this is going on while the Iranians have successfully strung along American diplomats in the nuclear talks further diminishes the credibility of the pledges uttered by both Biden and Kerry. At best, Biden’s boast about a bomb not happening on Obama’s watch might be true. The weak agreements the president has promoted in order to vainly pursue his long-sought goal of détente with Iran may not result in an Iranian bomb being produced before January 2017. But the erosion of the sanctions and the West’s agreement to tacitly recognize an Iranian right to enrich uranium, combined with an inability to do much about Arak, force Tehran to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to find out about their military-applications research, or to get the Iranians to negotiate about their ballistic-missile program may lead to one being produced on the watch of his successor.

All of these developments make it obvious that the only thing that can rescue diplomacy with Iran is for the U.S. to increase pressure on Tehran, not to play nice with the regime, as Obama always seems inclined to do. Last year, the administration beat back an effort to pass more sanctions that would have shut down Iran’s oil trade but would not have gone into effect unless diplomacy failed. The result of their conscious decision to play with a weak hand was a predictable failure. Faced with similar results as last year, the Obama foreign-policy team is undaunted and is pulling out the stops again to foil the majority of both Houses of Congress that want more sanctions.

The new Congress should ignore both Biden and Kerry and take it as a given that in the absence of real pressure, Iran will never give in on its nuclear ambition. The news about Iranian cheating as well as Kerry’s failure to get even a weak nuclear deal makes it imperative that both the House and the Senate should pass sanctions that remain the only option short of force that might have a change to derail Iran’s nuclear quest.

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Obama’s Iran Détente and Oil Prices

Americans may be enjoying some of the lowest gasoline prices in recent memory but this good news for consumers is very bad for those countries that count on oil revenue to keep them in business. Prominent among those suffering from the downturn in oil prices is the government of Iran. That regime has gambled its economy and its future on a nuclear program that it deems it sufficiently important to risk an economic collapse from international sanctions imposed in order to stop their nuclear program. The question is why won’t the Obama administration use the pressure that is building on Tehran due to oil prices to force it to give up its nuclear ambitions? The answer shows that President Obama clearly values his hopes for a new détente with Iran over the advantage that current economic conditions have handed him.

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Americans may be enjoying some of the lowest gasoline prices in recent memory but this good news for consumers is very bad for those countries that count on oil revenue to keep them in business. Prominent among those suffering from the downturn in oil prices is the government of Iran. That regime has gambled its economy and its future on a nuclear program that it deems it sufficiently important to risk an economic collapse from international sanctions imposed in order to stop their nuclear program. The question is why won’t the Obama administration use the pressure that is building on Tehran due to oil prices to force it to give up its nuclear ambitions? The answer shows that President Obama clearly values his hopes for a new détente with Iran over the advantage that current economic conditions have handed him.

As the Wall Street Journal reports today, the plunge of global oil prices is creating a potential crisis for an Iranian economy that has already been battered by international economic sanctions. Though Tehran is receiving $700 million a month from its frozen foreign bank accounts as a result of the weak interim nuclear deal signed by the West a year ago, the potential decline in revenue from its ongoing oil sales creates a genuine problem for the Islamist regime. That problem is being exacerbated by the decision of OPEC countries not to reduce its production output in response to the glut of cheaper oil on the market.

This ought to give U.S. negotiators the whip hand over their Iranian counterparts who have been stalling the talks while also stonewalling inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency who want to learn the extent of the regime’s research into military applications of their nuclear project. But as has been the pattern since President Obama came into office, the emphasis in the Iran talks has been on carrots for the ayatollahs, not sticks. From the start of the initial secret talks that led to the interim agreement through final status talks that have twice been extended past agreed deadlines, the administration has taken the position that Iran must be treated with kid gloves rather than confronted over its nuclear scofflaw status, let alone its support of international terrorism or ballistic missile program.

At each stage of the talks international demands for Iran to be more transparent or to give up its nuclear toys have been steadfastly denied, the U.S. scaled back its requests rather than standing up to the regime. Instead of halting enrichment of uranium, the U.S. has tacitly recognized an Iranian “right” to keep enriching as it amasses a stockpile of nuclear material that could be converted to use for a bomb. Instead of sticking to demands that Iran give up its centrifuges, the U.S. has acquiesced to Tehran’s insistence that they be allowed to keep them.

Under the circumstances, it’s little wonder that the Iranians continue to act as if it is they who have all the leverage in the talks since the U.S. long ago discarded most, if not all of the cards it holds. That’s why it is significant that rather than use the oil price decline as the kind of leverage that could be employed to pressure Iran to sign a deal, even another weak one, the U.S. meekly agreed to let the deadline pass without taking action of any sort. Even worse, the Iranians are aware of the fact that the administration seems to be far more worried about Congress imposing new sanctions on Iran that would shut down its oil sales once and for all than on the prospect of the Islamists’ delaying tactics that are bringing them closer to a bomb every day.

Rather than use the oil weapon, President Obama appears content to allow Iran to keep talking while running out the clock on the West. As the talks continue with no sense of urgency on the part of the West, once again it’s hard to argue with the proposition that it is the economic basket case in Iran that is acting as if it is in charge and not the American superpower that has already discarded most of the leverage it already had over Iran in the vain pursuit of détente that its leaders scorn. So long as that is true, the most likely outcome is not another weak nuclear deal but no deal at all with little chance that any sort of U.S. action might halt the nuclear danger.

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Do Americans Favor Appeasing Iran?

One of the foundations of President Obama’s push for détente with Iran is the assumption that Americans have had enough of conflicts in the Middle East. By seeking to strike a deal with Tehran on its nuclear-weapons program, the administration hopes to eliminate the chance of a confrontation with the Islamist regime on the issue. In order to defeat a campaign for tougher sanctions on Iran last year, Obama labeled critics of his weak interim deal with Iran as “warmongers,” an epithet that is considered to be an all-purpose argument winner in the aftermath of the Iraq war. But are those assumptions correct? According to pollster Frank Luntz, Americans are far more wary of appeasing Iran or allowing it to become a threshold nuclear power than the president and his supporters think.

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One of the foundations of President Obama’s push for détente with Iran is the assumption that Americans have had enough of conflicts in the Middle East. By seeking to strike a deal with Tehran on its nuclear-weapons program, the administration hopes to eliminate the chance of a confrontation with the Islamist regime on the issue. In order to defeat a campaign for tougher sanctions on Iran last year, Obama labeled critics of his weak interim deal with Iran as “warmongers,” an epithet that is considered to be an all-purpose argument winner in the aftermath of the Iraq war. But are those assumptions correct? According to pollster Frank Luntz, Americans are far more wary of appeasing Iran or allowing it to become a threshold nuclear power than the president and his supporters think.

According to a story in the Times of Israel, the veteran analyst claims a new poll shows that 69 percent of Americans oppose a deal with Iran leaving it with nuclear capabilities. This is significant, because even if we assume that Iran will eventually sign a new nuclear pact rather than just continuing to run out the clock by stalling Western negotiators as they have done for the last year, such a deal in which the Iranians keep their program is exactly what Secretary of State John Kerry is likely to bring home from the talks.

Just as important, the survey showed that huge majorities of Americans believe Iran is not negotiating in good faith and can’t be trusted to abide by any agreement it might sign. The poll also shows that 62 percent believe Iran is an enemy of the U.S.

These numbers should embolden Congress to act now to pass new sanctions that would both strengthen the administration’s hand in the talks as well as to make it clear that a return to a policy of pressure rather than appeasement is the only way to halt the nuclear threat short of using force.

It is true that even if we take these poll numbers into account, there probably isn’t much appetite for a new confrontation with Iran or even much interest in the issue, especially when compared with domestic issues. But the free ride that the president has been enjoying during the last two years as he fecklessly pursued détente with the ayatollahs may not last forever. Rather than going to sleep on foreign policy, the American people are genuinely alarmed about the way the president’s policy of retreat in the Middle East—of which his Iran engagement has been a central plank—has created new crises, facilitated the rise of ISIS, and made the world less safe. Indeed, Luntz’s poll shows that Americans think the world is more dangerous than it was under George W. Bush, a startling result considering that Obama rode into the White House by riding a tide of anger about the Iraq war.

These numbers don’t show that Americans want war with Iran. Nobody and certainly not those calling for tougher sanctions on Iran want that. But it does mean that the belief that the administration can sell any sort of nuclear deal with Iran to the public is misplaced. Americans rightly fear Iran and know that any deal that allows them to become a threshold nuclear power is not something that is compatible with the defense of U.S. security. After the rise of ISIS and the collapse of confidence in Obama’s foreign policy, the administration will have to do more than merely label critics of its Iran policy as warmongers if they wish to prevail.

The debate on Iran is only just beginning. Those who think that it can be squelched have not taken into account the fact that most Americans rightly fear the ayatollahs and don’t want their government to turn a blind eye to a nuclear program that threatens to destabilize the region and plunge the Middle East into even worse turmoil.

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Netanyahu Chooses the Lesser of Two Evils

Some observers were a bit surprised by the relieved tone with which Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu greeted the news that the Iran nuclear talks were being extended for another seven months. While most skeptics of President Obama’s push for détente with Iran were rightly angry about the decision to send the talks into a second overtime period, Netanyahu played it cool saying that “no agreement was preferable than a bad agreement.” After months of heightened tension between Israel and the United States, in the willingness of the prime minister to opt for a low-key approach to this crucial issue Netanyahu is clearly opting to avoid another open breach with the U.S. But the question hanging over this is why the Israelis have chosen to downplay what everyone knows is a disagreement that is threatening to tear the U.S.-Israel alliance apart and what he hopes will happen in the next few months while Iran continues to run out the clock on the West.

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Some observers were a bit surprised by the relieved tone with which Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu greeted the news that the Iran nuclear talks were being extended for another seven months. While most skeptics of President Obama’s push for détente with Iran were rightly angry about the decision to send the talks into a second overtime period, Netanyahu played it cool saying that “no agreement was preferable than a bad agreement.” After months of heightened tension between Israel and the United States, in the willingness of the prime minister to opt for a low-key approach to this crucial issue Netanyahu is clearly opting to avoid another open breach with the U.S. But the question hanging over this is why the Israelis have chosen to downplay what everyone knows is a disagreement that is threatening to tear the U.S.-Israel alliance apart and what he hopes will happen in the next few months while Iran continues to run out the clock on the West.

Despite not criticizing the extension, Netanyahu made it clear that he is appalled by the direction in which the talks are heading. Had the Iranians accepted the West’s current offer, “the deal would’ve left Iran with the ability to enrich uranium for an atomic bomb while removing the sanctions.” He believes the only deal with Iran that makes sense is one that “will dismantle Iran’s capacity to make atom bombs,” a formula he takes to mean no uranium enrichment of any kind rather than the compromise put forward by Secretary of State John Kerry which would for all intents and purposes allow them to become a nuclear threshold state.

Seen from that perspective, the Israeli relief about the continuation of the talks seems misplaced. If Netanyahu doesn’t like the deal Kerry put on the table over the past weekend that Iran rejected, he should expect to be even less pleased with subsequent offers that the West will make in order to entice Iran to finally sign even a weak nuclear agreement that will give President Obama the sham foreign-policy success that he so badly needs.

Indeed, as Dennis Ross, the longtime State Department peace processor and subsequently a special advisor to the Obama administration on Iran and the Persian Gulf said today, Iran has showed no flexibility in the nuclear talks. The history of the last two years of discussions that led up to the interim deal signed last November (which relaxed sanctions and gave tacit recognition to Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium in exchange for measures that did little to halt the Islamist regime’s nuclear progress) and the subsequent standoff in the current talks has been marked by a steady Western retreat from its positions. Throughout this period, the U.S. has shown “flexibility” rather than standing up for its principle and as a result has thrown away the considerable economic and political leverage it had over Tehran.

There’s little question that any negotiations in the seven more months that have been added to the yearlong quest for a final agreement are likely to yield even more concessions. Indeed, why should the Iranians who have stood their ground throughout this process, demanding and getting a steady stream of Western retreats on issues such as enrichment, the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed to operate, and the future of its stockpile of nuclear fuel, and allowed other issues such as the need to divulge the extent of its nuclear military research, the future of its plutonium plant at Arak, its ballistic missile program, and support for international terrorism to be kept off the agenda of the negotiations?

So what possible good can come out of the delay?

One obvious possibility is that Iran is so now so confident in their ability to string Obama, Kerry, and company along that they will never sign any deal. In one sense that would be a disaster since it would mean the West had wasted two more years on futile negotiations while Iran got even closer to realizing its nuclear goal. However, another failure to get Iran to sign would force the president to come face to face with the fact that his policies had failed and drop his push for appeasement in the hope of creating a new détente with Iran.

Clearly, Obama would not abandon his hopes for a rapprochement with Iran without a struggle. But it remains possible that Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will never agree to any deal no matter how favorable it might be for his country. If so, that sets the stage for the imposition of the sort of tough sanctions—amounting to an economic embargo on Iran and the halting of all oil sales—that could bring the country to its knees.

But for that to happen, it will be necessary for Congress to ignore Obama and Kerry’s pleas and enact the next round of sanctions now in order to have them in place and ready when the negotiations fail. By piping down now, Netanyahu is rightly adding weight to the bipartisan majority in Congress in favor of increasing the economic restrictions on doing business with Iran. Moreover, by not publicly opposing the administration’s decision, the Israelis are making it clear to both Congress and the American public that their goal is not the use of force but rather an effort to recreate the strong position the West held over Iran before Kerry folded during the interim talks last year. Another pointless spat with Obama would be a needless distraction that would undermine support for sanctions.

A choice between a “terrible” agreement and a postponement that also seems to play into Tehran’s hands is not one anyone outside of Iran should relish. Yet a lot can happen in seven months. Though there is a very real possibility that the next round will yield more concessions and an even weaker deal, the chance exists that a combination of Iranian rejectionism and congressional action will create a turnabout that will force the U.S. to stop appeasing the Islamist regime and return to a policy based on strength and common sense. If so, Netanyahu’s decision to choose the lesser of two evils and keep his powder dry this week will turn out to be a smart move he won’t regret.

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Congress Must Rescue Administration Held Hostage by Iran

This morning’s announcement that the West has formally agreed to extend its nuclear talks with Iran for another seven months confirms something that we already knew about Obama administration attitudes on the issue: it is far more afraid of disrupting any chance for détente with the Islamist regime than in sticking to its principles or its promises about halting the threat posed by Tehran’s program. But while sending the talks into a second overtime period allows Iran to keep moving ahead with its nuclear program and lets Secretary of State John Kerry and his negotiators to relax a bit, this decision should wake up Congress. The failure of the administration to escape the trap that it has set for itself by letting the next stage of the talks drag on endlessly should re-energize the existing bipartisan coalition in favor of toughening sanctions on Iran to get back to work and pass a new bill.

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This morning’s announcement that the West has formally agreed to extend its nuclear talks with Iran for another seven months confirms something that we already knew about Obama administration attitudes on the issue: it is far more afraid of disrupting any chance for détente with the Islamist regime than in sticking to its principles or its promises about halting the threat posed by Tehran’s program. But while sending the talks into a second overtime period allows Iran to keep moving ahead with its nuclear program and lets Secretary of State John Kerry and his negotiators to relax a bit, this decision should wake up Congress. The failure of the administration to escape the trap that it has set for itself by letting the next stage of the talks drag on endlessly should re-energize the existing bipartisan coalition in favor of toughening sanctions on Iran to get back to work and pass a new bill.

It should be remembered that a year ago in the aftermath of the signing of a weak interim deal with Iran, the administration successfully fended off efforts to increase sanctions on the Islamist regime by claiming that doing so would disrupt the negotiations. President Obama and Kerry both promised that the next round of talks would have a limited time frame that would prevent Iran from continuing the same game that it has played with the West for the last decade.

Tehran has been trying to run out the clock on the nuclear issue since George W. Bush’s first term in the White House. It has easily exploited two administrations’ efforts at engagement and diplomacy during this time frame and has gotten far closer to its goal of a bomb as a result. Even more importantly, with each round of negotiations it has forced Obama and America’s allies to retreat on its demands. Last year its tough stance forced Kerry to give up and ultimately agree to tacit Western acceptance of Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium.

In the last year, it has also successfully gotten the U.S. to retreat on issues such as the number of centrifuges it is allowed to operate and the future of its stockpile of nuclear fuel, and kept other issues such as the need to divulge the extent of its nuclear military research, the future of its plutonium plant at Arak, its ballistic missile program, and support for international terrorism off the agenda. Proposed Western concessions have grown to the point of the absurd, such as the suggestion about disconnecting the pipes between the centrifuges. At the same time Iran has also stonewalled the International Atomic Energy Agency on demands for more inspections and transparency.

After last year’s interim deal was signed, the administration easily fended off congressional efforts to toughen sanctions by saying they weren’t needed to strengthen the hands of Western negotiators and openly talked of the danger of demonstrating ill will toward Tehran that would scuttle the talks. The president and his foreign-policy team also labeled skeptics about this deal and advocates of more sanctions as warmongers.

But a year later it’s clear that the skeptics were right and everything the administration promised about the next round of talks was either mistaken or an outright lie. Though Kerry claimed that the interim deal had achieved its goal of halting Iran’s progress, the truth is that nothing it accomplished can be easily reversed. In exchange for dubious progress, the U.S. sacrificed its considerable economic leverage in the form of loosening sanctions. Iran now believes with good reason that it can end the sanctions without giving up its nuclear ambition.

By turning the promised six months of talks to pressure Iran into a year plus seven months, the president and Kerry have broken their word to Congress and played right into the hands of the ayatollahs. It’s possible that seven more months of ineffectual pressure on Iran will yield another weak deal that will ensure it will soon become a threshold nuclear power while at the same time allowing Obama to announce a much-needed foreign-policy success and the fulfillment of his campaign pledges on the issue. But given the promises that were made about the previous two deadlines, what confidence can anyone have in America’s willingness to draw conclusions about the talks if Iran doesn’t yield?

Even if we are operating under the dubious assumption that any deal reached under these circumstances could be enforced or achieve its goal, the failure of the president to enforce the current deadline telegraphs to Iran that it needn’t worry about any other threats from the West. If the U.S. wouldn’t feel empowered to push Iran hard now with oil prices in decline and the current sanctions (which Obama opposed in the first place) having some impact on the regime’s economy, why would anyone in Tehran take seriously the idea that there will be consequences if they don’t make concessions or sign even another weak deal? Though Kerry talked about building trust with Iran, the only thing that can be trusted about this process is that the Islamists have played him and his boss for fools.

That is why Congress must step in now and immediately revive the bipartisan bill proposed by Democratic Senator Robert Menendez and Republican Senator Mark Kirk that would tighten the noose around Iran’s still-lucrative oil trade. Just as the current sanctions that Obama and Kerry brag about were forced upon them, the only way this administration will negotiate a viable deal with Iran is to tie its hands by passing a new sanctions bill.

It should also be pointed out that the alternative to Kerry’s appeasement of Iran is not the use of force. Tougher sanctions that will return the situation to the point where it was last year before Kerry caved on the interim deal provide the only chance to stop Iran by means short of war.

It may be that outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will block a sanctions bill in the lame duck session just as he did last year despite the support of an overwhelming majority of members from both parties. But if he does thwart action, the new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republican majorities in both houses should act quickly to pass a bill that will impose real penalties on Iran.

The commitment of Obama and Kerry to détente with Iran has made them, in effect, hostages of the Islamist regime in these talks. The only way they can be rescued from their own folly is action by Congress.

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Obama’s Dangerous Race for an Iran Deal

With only two weeks to go before the deadline for the end of the current round of nuclear talks with Iran, the Obama administration has been conducting what can only be considered a full-court press aimed at producing a deal before November 24. This is in marked contrast to the relaxed attitude toward the previous deadline for the talks that passed in June and was extended to the fall. It also seems to contradict the behavior of Washington’s European negotiating partners who seemed to be reconciling themselves to yet another extension in the familiar pattern of stalling that has always characterized Iran’s conduct of the negotiations. But though the latest talks in Oman ended without agreement, the flurry of diplomatic action raises the question of whether President Obama believes he needs to get a deal done now before Republicans take control of the Senate in January.

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With only two weeks to go before the deadline for the end of the current round of nuclear talks with Iran, the Obama administration has been conducting what can only be considered a full-court press aimed at producing a deal before November 24. This is in marked contrast to the relaxed attitude toward the previous deadline for the talks that passed in June and was extended to the fall. It also seems to contradict the behavior of Washington’s European negotiating partners who seemed to be reconciling themselves to yet another extension in the familiar pattern of stalling that has always characterized Iran’s conduct of the negotiations. But though the latest talks in Oman ended without agreement, the flurry of diplomatic action raises the question of whether President Obama believes he needs to get a deal done now before Republicans take control of the Senate in January.

The end of the talks in Oman without an accord is likely not a sign that the deadline won’t be met. The Iranians are past masters of the art of wearing down their Western interlocutors. A year ago, the Iranians’ tough tactics resulted in Secretary of State John Kerry’s decision to sign onto a deal that tacitly endorsed the Islamist regime’s “right” to enrich uranium and keep their nuclear infrastructure. Now they are similarly hammering Kerry in sessions where he continues to demand that Tehran accept what President Obama referred to yesterday as “verifiable lock-tight assurances that they can’t develop a nuclear weapon.” But since Iran has no intention of giving such assurances, they believe Kerry will, as he has before, decide that Western demands are just too difficult to achieve and accept far less in order to produce a deal.

But while the deadlines were originally sold to the U.S. public as evidence that the administration was serious about stopping Iran, the potential for a cutoff in the talks seems to be affecting Obama and Kerry far more than it is the Iranians. With sanctions already having been loosened and Europeans clamoring for an end to all restrictions on doing business with the regime, Tehran seems unmoved by the prospect of an end to the negotiations. By contrast, the administration seems genuinely fearful that November 24 will pass without diplomatic success.

Selling the U.S. public and Congress on yet another extension would be embarrassing but, given Obama’s success in squelching past criticisms of his Iran policy, would not be that much of a stretch. So long as he could pretend that the Iranians were negotiating in good faith, skeptics could be put down as warmongers who oppose diplomacy. But instead of slouching toward another round of seemingly endless negotiations, the Obama foreign-policy team is acting as if the deadline matters this time.

It is theoretically possible that this means the president intends to treat an Iranian refusal to sign as the signal for ratcheting up pressure on Tehran. Tightening rather than loosening of sanctions might recover some of the ground the president has lost in the last year. But few in Washington or anywhere else think this is likely. Years of on-and-off secret talks with the Iranians, including the recent revelations of the president’s correspondence with Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, show that Obama’s goal centers more on détente with the regime, not halting its nuclear project.

That leads to the inevitable conclusion that the motivation for the diplomatic frenzy is not so much fear of having to get tough with Iran as it is fear that a Republican-controlled Congress will prevent the implementation of another weak deal. There’s little doubt that without outgoing Majority Leader Harry Reid to help the president stall advocates of tougher sanctions, Congress will pass a new bill that will hold the administration and Tehran accountable. A deal that allows Iran to become a threshold nuclear power—something that seems almost certain given the administration’s habit of accepting Tehran’s no’s as final and then moving on to the next concession—will set off a major battle in the Senate even if Obama does try to evade the constitutional requirement of submitting it to the Senate for a vote.

But the president’s fear of having to present such a dubious deal to the public seems to be inspiring him to present a weaker, not a tougher position to Iran. The Iranians know this and are standing their ground in the expectation that rather than walking away from the table, Obama will accept another bad deal in order to get it all done before McConnell is running the Senate.

But rather than treating this as a partisan matter, both Republicans and Democrats in the Congress should be alarmed at the prospect of the president holding a fire sale of vital American interests merely to avoid having to carry on his appeasement of Iran while being held accountable by a GOP-run Senate. No matter what terms the president presents to the public, there seems little chance that any of them can be enforced in the absence of more United Nations inspections of Iranian facilities, which are still being denied by the ayatollahs or an end to ongoing cheating on the interim agreement. Nor should either party be comforted by the idea that the president will be relying on the trustworthiness of his pen pal Khamenei at the same time the latter is tweeting out a steady barrage of anti-Semitic and genocidal threats toward Israel.

If there is anything more dangerous than a deliberate campaign of engagement with Iran, it is the current race to a deal that can’t be verified and won’t put an end to the regime’s nuclear ambitions. This should be a signal for responsible members of both parties that it is time to pass the tougher sanctions that Obama successfully defeated last winter.

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Iran Appeasement at Stake in Midterms

American elections are always closely watched by foreign nations. But there may no more interested observers of tonight’s midterm results than the leaders of Iran. The ability of the Obama administration to pursue détente with Iran and to cut a new weak deal that will enable the Islamist regime to become a nuclear threshold state may rest on the ability of President Obama’s party to hold onto control of the Senate.

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American elections are always closely watched by foreign nations. But there may no more interested observers of tonight’s midterm results than the leaders of Iran. The ability of the Obama administration to pursue détente with Iran and to cut a new weak deal that will enable the Islamist regime to become a nuclear threshold state may rest on the ability of President Obama’s party to hold onto control of the Senate.

The administration’s zeal for a deal with the Iranians appears undiminished by Tehran’s decision to continue to impede the efforts of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to discover what is going on at their nuclear plants. As the Wall Street Journal reported last Friday, the IAEA has made public the fact that there has been no progress made in getting access for inspections despite a year of negotiations. The Iranians are, as is their wont, continuing to run out the clock on the West on those talks. At the same time they are stringing the U.S. along in its efforts to broker a deal despite reports of far-reaching concessions that would allow it to keep their nuclear infrastructure in any agreement.

Given the growing sentiment in Europe for ending economic sanctions on Iran, there is no guarantee that watering down the terms of an agreement even more will entice the Islamists to sign a deal ending the standoff. Yet given the administration’s signals about treating this issue as their top foreign-policy priority, it seems likely that Obama will get some kind of an accord that will enable him to say he has addressed the world’s concerns about the nuclear threat from Iran even if it does little to diminish that threat.

Obama’s ability to do as he likes on Iran stems in no small measure from the president’s ability to get the Democratic majority in the Senate—and in particular, Majority Leader Harry Reid—to do his bidding on the issue. Though a bipartisan proposal for toughening sanctions on Iran if the talks failed had overwhelming support in the Senate last winter, including the vocal advocacy of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez, Reid was able to spike the effort. If, as the administration has indicated, it will seek to bypass congressional approval for any new Iran deal, the president knows he can count on Reid to perform the same service this year despite complaints from fellow Democrat Menendez. But with the GOP in control of the Senate, the administration will have a lot less leeway in their pursuit of appeasement.

If a deal is signed, the president and his cheering section in the media will, no doubt, go all out to label any skeptics of the agreement as warmongers in much the same manner as they did last year. In order to end sanctions on Iran, a key requirement for Tehran in any accord, the president will suspend enforcement of the laws. But getting rid of them will require congressional action that is unlikely to occur. More to the point, Congress will have an opportunity to respond to an end run around the Constitution that requires Senate approval of all treaties with new sanctions on Iran.

Interestingly, the International Business Times speculates today that a switch in control of the Foreign Relations Committee could work to Obama’s advantage. If, as expected, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker replaces Menendez and Democrat Dick Durbin becomes the ranking member instead of Republican Mark Kirk, the IBT thinks this pair is more likely to do Obama’s bidding on Iran than the current team.

But that underestimates support throughout the Senate and on the committee for tougher sanctions on Iran. More to the point, the “sanctions mongers,” as the IBT refers to opponents of Iran appeasement, will likely have the backing of the putative Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. With or without a new weak deal with Iran, the odds are, Republicans in both the House and the Senate will pass a bill similar to the one proposed by Menendez and Kirk last year which sought to hold the president’s feet to the fire on Iran.

Those who think a GOP-run Senate will back Obama’s play on Iran are underestimating the skepticism about the president’s policy in Congress as well as the deep concern for Israel’s security in the GOP at a time when, as Jeffrey Goldberg’s Atlantic column illustrated last week, the administration’s is seeking to chill relations with the Jewish state.

That’s why it won’t be just U.S. political junkies staying up tonight to see if Reid or McConnell is running the Senate next year. The ayatollahs understand their ability to manipulate a U.S. government that they have pegged as a weak negotiating partner may be dependent on the outcome.

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Congress Can Stop Obama’s Iran Appeasement End Run

While most of the attention on the Iran nuclear issue has rightly been on the negotiations being conducted by the U.S. and its allies with Tehran, the Obama administration is already planning for the aftermath of what it hopes will be a new agreement. But rather than preparing for an effort to persuade Congress of the merits of its diplomatic efforts, the president is planning on an end run around the laws it passed and unilaterally suspending enforcement of the sanctions on Iran. In doing so, he will not only be continuing a path he has pursued on issues such as immigration but will go even further in violating the constitutional requirement that the legislative branch approve all treaties with foreign powers.

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While most of the attention on the Iran nuclear issue has rightly been on the negotiations being conducted by the U.S. and its allies with Tehran, the Obama administration is already planning for the aftermath of what it hopes will be a new agreement. But rather than preparing for an effort to persuade Congress of the merits of its diplomatic efforts, the president is planning on an end run around the laws it passed and unilaterally suspending enforcement of the sanctions on Iran. In doing so, he will not only be continuing a path he has pursued on issues such as immigration but will go even further in violating the constitutional requirement that the legislative branch approve all treaties with foreign powers.

The president’s problem isn’t limited to the fact that many Americans are rightly worried that the deal in the works with Iran is one that won’t do much to prevent the Islamist regime from eventually realizing its nuclear ambition. It’s that the economic sanctions that were imposed on Iran by laws enacted by Congress must be rescinded in the same manner that they were passed: by a vote. If the agreement that the U.S. is pushing hard to conclude with Iran is a good one, then the president and Secretary of State John Kerry should have no problem selling it to Congress, which could then simply vote to rescind the sanctions.

But such a vote would require hearings and a full debate on the matter. During the course of that debate, it almost certainly would become clear that what the administration is prepared to allow Iran would fall far short of the president’s campaign pledges to end Tehran’s nuclear program or to prevent it from ever getting a bomb. The administration has already publicly floated some of the terms it is offering the Iranians. While last year’s weak interim deal tacitly endorsed Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium that could be used for a weapon, the U.S. has retreated further from its initial tough position and is now prepared to allow the Iranians to have at least 1,000 centrifuges that could process the material to build nuclear fuel. Since the Iranians are insisting with their usual persistence that they be allowed to keep all of their centrifuges, most observers now assume that the U.S. will agree to a deal that will allow them to have thousands.

In order to save face, American negotiators have reportedly suggested that the pipes connecting the centrifuges be disconnected, a pathetic stance that further undermines American credibility since it is understood that they can easily be reconnected anytime the ayatollahs deem it in their interest. The same can be said of Iran’s agreement to deactivate its existing stockpile of enriched uranium since that too can be reversed with ease.

Seen in that light any agreement—assuming the Iranians are willing to agree to another weak deal rather than simply waiting until the international coalition Obama is leading unravels—will be difficult to sell to a skeptical Congress that pushed an unwilling administration into agreeing to the sanctions in the first place.

In order to evade the law, the president will have to do two things.

First, he will have to declare that any agreement will be merely an informal add-on to existing international deals rather than a treaty and so avoid a constitutionally required two-thirds ratification vote in the Senate he’d be unlikely to win. That will be a blatant lie but since the move would have to be taken to court, it’s a gamble he’d likely win.

Second, he will have to unilaterally suspend enforcement of the sanctions on Iran passed by Congress rather than have them rescinded. As even the New York Times notes in its article on the topic yesterday, that is not a stance even most Democrats would tolerate.

More to the point, the president’s prepared end run also signals the resumption of a political battle over renewed sanctions that the administration thought it had conclusively won last winter. At the time, majorities in the House and the Senate were prepared to enact even tougher restrictions on commerce with Iran that would have tightened the noose on Tehran’s oil business. But, with the able assistance of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the president was able to stop the Senate from voting on the measure proposed by Senator Robert Menendez, the Foreign Relations Committee chair and Senator Mark Kirk. Supporters of more sanctions (which would not have gone into effect until the next phase of negotiations with Iran was pronounced a failure) were branded “warmongers” who didn’t want to give diplomacy a chance and thus effectively silenced.

But this time that strategy won’t work.

After a year of talks that have been dragged beyond the original six-month deadline and may yet be further extended as Iran continues its decade-old strategy of running out the clock on the West, it is no longer possible to argue that Obama needs to be given an opportunity to test the good will of the Iranians. Nor can the president pretend that the current terms are anything but a transparent surrender to Iranian demands and not a fulfillment of his pledges.

That’s why Menendez is prepared to try again this fall when Congress returns to Washington after the midterm elections. As the Times reports:

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat, said over the weekend that, “If a potential deal does not substantially and effectively dismantle Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program, I expect Congress will respond. An agreement cannot allow Iran to be a threshold nuclear state.” He has sponsored legislation to tighten sanctions if no agreement is reached by Nov. 24.

If that weren’t enough of a threat to force the administration to stiffen its spin in negotiations with Iran, there is also the real possibility that in January the president will not be able to rely on Reid to spike sanctions legislation. If, as they are favored to do, the Republicans take control of the Senate, it is highly likely that Obama will find himself presented with new sanctions legislation on his desk in the new year whether or not he has signed off on a deal with Iran.

This is a crucial moment in the negotiations with Iran when the outcome is not yet determined. Unfortunately, the president’s efforts to loosen sanctions have already undermined international support for isolating Iran. With the possibility of a new deal, they are on the verge of complete collapse. But renewed and even tougher sanctions on Iran will signal to Europe that their expectations of a return to business as usual with Iran were a bit premature.

While the president thinks he can evade his constitutional requirements to let Congress vote on a treaty or rescind another law he doesn’t like, members of both parties appear ready to respond appropriately to this lawless plan. Unlike environmental regulations or even immigration laws, appeasement of Iran isn’t something that can be imposed on the country by presidential whim.

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Euros Bet on Obama Appeasing Iran

Secretary of State John Kerry spent several hours yesterday closeted in a Vienna hotel room with Iranian negotiators as he sought to reach a new nuclear agreement. The Iranians are sticking to their insistence on retaining their right to enrich uranium as well as to keep the rest of their infrastructure while Kerry seems to be focused on face saving measures that will allow President Obama to claim that he kept his pledge to stop Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. But while there is still a chance that the U.S. won’t cave in to Iran, a conference of European business figures meeting in London was betting heavily on the Americans continuing on their path to appeasement.

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Secretary of State John Kerry spent several hours yesterday closeted in a Vienna hotel room with Iranian negotiators as he sought to reach a new nuclear agreement. The Iranians are sticking to their insistence on retaining their right to enrich uranium as well as to keep the rest of their infrastructure while Kerry seems to be focused on face saving measures that will allow President Obama to claim that he kept his pledge to stop Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. But while there is still a chance that the U.S. won’t cave in to Iran, a conference of European business figures meeting in London was betting heavily on the Americans continuing on their path to appeasement.

What was billed as the “1st Europe-Iran Forum” convened Wednesday morning and was touted in breathless fashion on the website of The Iran Project, a leading American advocate of appeasement of the Islamist regime as a way for European businesses to get the latest information about Iran. But the purpose of the event, which was officially endorsed by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and various members of the European foreign policy establishment was two fold.

On the one hand it is an effort to help prepare Western enterprises for a return to the Iranian market after international sanctions on Iran are lifted in the event of a new nuclear agreement. But it is actually more than just a prudent bet on appeasement. The point of the conference is also to help manufacture more pressure on the Americans to back down from their initially strong positions demanding the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure that would ensure that it would never be able to build a bomb. With Europe already chafing at the existing sanctions, the push to weaken the restrictions on economic activity with Iran is removing what little leverage Kerry has left in the talks.

The conference is but the latest effort touted by Iran appeasement advocates to ease the way toward reintegrating Iran into the global economy. The assumption behind the blithe talk about doing business in Iran is that the loosening of the sanctions that took place last year in the interim deal signed by Kerry began an inevitable process that will end with their complete unraveling.

The push for appeasement has gained strength in recent months as Iran’s equivocal role in the fight against ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria has both diverted the administration from the nuclear issue and also caused it to believe that détente with Tehran offers a solution to all of the West’s problems.

Of course, Iran’s fight with ISIS stems from its desire to prop up its ally Bashar Assad in Syria and on maintaining the power of its Shiite allies in Iraq not a desire to protect the world against the group’s Islamist beliefs. Its disagreement with ISIS is not about Islamism or terrorism but which Islamist terrorists should dominate the Middle East.

The push to dismantle sanctions treats the nuclear threat from Iran as a theoretical problem that need not trouble the West much. That’s why the administration appears willing to agree to measures that at best delay the nuclear quest but do nothing to actually prevent Iran from achieving its dangerous ambitions.

The discussion of the post sanctions environment encourages Iran to refuse to budge not only on enrichment but also on a whole range of issues including inspections of research sites like Parchin and its construction of ballistic missiles. Nor is Kerry even bothering to push Iran to end its support of international terrorism.

The only pressure on Kerry appears to come from the November deadline set for negotiating with Iran that is actually an extension of the earlier time frame that was extended over the summer. Continuing to negotiate in perpetuity would give critics of this appeasement process more ammunition to push for renewed and stronger sanctions on Iran. Last winter the administration was able to brand advocates of tough diplomacy as “warmongers” and, with the help of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid head off measures that would have strengthened Kerry’s hand in the talks. President Obama and his team preferred not to offend the Iranians with increased sanctions but what they have learned is that in doing so they stripped themselves of the only tool that might have produced an acceptable agreement. Iran’s position in the negotiations is now so strong that Kerry has been reduced to offering to allow them to keep their centrifuges for uranium enrichment while asking them to disconnect them.

Under the circumstances, its hard to argue with Europeans and others who believe it is only a matter of time before Washington surrenders to Iran and effectively end sanctions without getting anything more than unenforceable nuclear promises in exchange. Barring a last minute change of heart on the president’s part or a renewed drive for sanctions if the Senate changes hands, the drift toward appeasement appears inexorable.

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About That Iran Talks Deadline?

Last year when the United States and its allies signed an interim nuclear accord with Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear to the world that the subsequent round of talks to arrive at a final resolution of the problem would not be allowed to go on indefinitely. Unlike past diplomatic exchanges with Iran, the negotiations would be limited to a period of six months after which there would either be a satisfactory agreement to end the nuclear threat or Iran would face serious consequences. But a low-key announcement from the European Union about a diplomatic assignment demonstrates that what Kerry said would never be allowed to happen is exactly what will occur.

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Last year when the United States and its allies signed an interim nuclear accord with Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear to the world that the subsequent round of talks to arrive at a final resolution of the problem would not be allowed to go on indefinitely. Unlike past diplomatic exchanges with Iran, the negotiations would be limited to a period of six months after which there would either be a satisfactory agreement to end the nuclear threat or Iran would face serious consequences. But a low-key announcement from the European Union about a diplomatic assignment demonstrates that what Kerry said would never be allowed to happen is exactly what will occur.

The announcement concerned European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton who will, we are informed, continue on in her role as chief negotiator for the P5+1 talks with Iran even after her term on the EU Commission expires in November. Rather than her designated successor, current Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, assuming the responsibility for leading the Western delegation in the negotiations, Ashton will soldier on in this thankless task. But aside from any qualms about Ashton’s past performance in the role, which inspires little confidence in either her willingness to press the Islamist regime or her commitment to ending the danger of an Iranian bomb, there is one other little problem.

If the final round of the P5+1 talks were only supposed to last six months, why will Ashton’s services still be required more than a year after the interim accord was signed?

The answer is all too obvious. Despite the pious promises from Kerry and all of the other defenders of the interim accord that the West had learned its lesson about being strung along by the Iranians, they have in fact fallen for the same trick again. Having been suckered into an interim deal that weakened sanctions on Iran just at the moment when the enormous economic and military leverage over the regime seemed to provide an opportunity to pressure it to come to terms without the use of force, Western negotiators have now found themselves trapped in a device of their own making. They gambled everything on the belief that Iran was ready to sign a final accord that would allow President Obama to fulfill his campaign promise to stop Iran. But after several months of talks that demonstrated anew that the Iranians will never give up their nuclear program or agree to any terms that will effectively prevent them from building a bomb, the U.S. and its allies feel they have no choice but to keep talking even if there is no end in sight.

The announcement about Ashton is significant because even when the P5+1 group formally extended the Iran talks after the six-month mark was passed this summer (Iran had already been allowed to delay the start of the clock), Congress and the public were assured that this would not mean they would go on indefinitely. But with the Iranians digging in their heels recently on a variety of issues, including inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency and their uranium refinement and stockpile of nuclear fuel, there seems no chance that the next round of negotiations to be held in New York during the meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations will be anything but a continuation of past frustration for the West and delaying tactics by the Iranians.

The notion of Iran running out the clock in these talks has always been crucial. That’s because for the last decade it’s been obvious that doing so merely gives them more time to reach their nuclear goal after which it will no longer be possible for the West to take meaningful action. That was the case when similar prevarications worked to allow the North Koreans to pass the nuclear threshold, something that should be painfully familiar to Wendy Sherman, the head of the U.S. delegation to the talks Ashton chairs, who was performing the same role with the North Koreans.

It is apt to remember that when critics of the interim accord raised questions about its lenient terms, the loosening of sanctions, and the Iranians’ stalling the West again, they were labeled “warmongers.” Attempts by a majority in both houses of Congress to enact new, tougher sanctions on Iran that would go into effect only when the next round of negotiations would be declared a failure were denounced by the administration as an unwarranted interference in what they considered to be a productive diplomatic stream.

Had those sanctions been enacted last winter rather than being spiked by procedural maneuvers by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Obama’s veto threats, Ashton and the P5+1 negotiators would have some real leverage over the Iranians at this point. But instead of allowing diplomacy to flourish, the defeat of sanctions was a gift to the Iranians who now feel empowered to return to the dilatory tactics of the past.

Iran’s position is further strengthened by the situation in Iraq and Syria where the rise of ISIS (due in no small measure to other foreign-policy blunders by the administration) has made the administration even more loath to offend Tehran. Having a common foe with the United States seems to have empowered the Iranians to think they have nothing to worry about. They also benefit from the conflict between the West and Russia over Ukraine, as Moscow now seems inclined to offer the Iranians an outlet that will render sanctions less effective.

Seen in that light, Ashton may have reason to believe that she will have more or less permanent employment in a P5+1 process that could drag out well into the future. But this admission not only gives the lie to Kerry’s promises about the interim accord’s time limits. It also gives the ayatollahs confidence that the West no longer is serious, if indeed it ever was, about preventing them from realizing their nuclear ambitions.

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Tough on ISIS? Iran Senses U.S. Weakness

After weeks of indecision, President Obama is finally, albeit in a limited manner, mustering U.S. strength to respond to the challenge from ISIS terrorists. But at the same time, another dangerous Islamist power is sensing U.S. weakness in its struggle to build a nuclear weapon. The latest news about Iranian maneuvering prior to the resumption of the nuclear talks with the West provides a stark contrast to any talk about a more muscular Obama foreign policy.

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After weeks of indecision, President Obama is finally, albeit in a limited manner, mustering U.S. strength to respond to the challenge from ISIS terrorists. But at the same time, another dangerous Islamist power is sensing U.S. weakness in its struggle to build a nuclear weapon. The latest news about Iranian maneuvering prior to the resumption of the nuclear talks with the West provides a stark contrast to any talk about a more muscular Obama foreign policy.

As the New York Times reports today, Iran is going full speed ahead with a diplomatic campaign to undermine Western sanctions aimed at forcing them to come to terms on a nuclear agreement. Secretary of State John Kerry began the process of weakening and perhaps dismantling the restrictions on doing business with Iran last fall in the hope that this would lead Tehran to meet him at least halfway and sign another weak accord that might let them keep their nuclear program while committing them to not build a bomb. But in the months that have followed Kerry’s interim deal, the Iranians have not played ball. Instead, they have reverted to their pattern of previous negotiations in which they have stalled and continued to try to run out the clock until it is too late to stop them. While some sources close to the negotiations claim that a final agreement is possible and may even be within reach, Iran’s public stance and its diplomatic offensive leave the impression that they are standing firm and will agree to nothing that ultimately limits their ability to build a bomb.

The Obama administration’s zeal for a deal with Iran is no secret. Nor is the president’s desire to craft a new détente with Tehran. That impulse is only strengthened by the fact that both Iran and the U.S. view the ISIS terrorists as an enemy. As I wrote last week, the administration’s belated realization that letting ISIS flourish in Syria and Iraq was a colossal error is leading some to conclude that it should work together with the Iranian regime in an attempt to crush the group. But while it is to be hoped that the U.S. and Iran will not clash in Iraq, no one should trust Tehran or its motives in intervening against ISIS. Nor should this temporary confluence of interests be allowed to impact the U.S. effort to stop Iran from going nuclear.

But unfortunately, the mixed signals coming from Washington about Iran are already being interpreted abroad as indicating the administration’s lack of resolve on the nuclear issue. As the Times notes, Iran seems to be making progress in getting Russia (which is always happy to thwart U.S. interests on any issue even if it makes no sense for the Putin regime to let their Iranian neighbor acquire a bomb) and South Africa to think about backing away from sanctions or openly breaching them. And so long as the U.S. is behaving as if the nuclear issue is not a priority and that increasing, rather than weakening the restrictions in the coming year is on the table (a prospect that the administration quashed when it was proposed by Congress), it’s hard to blame these countries and others who are tempted to do business with Iran, that Obama doesn’t care much about the issue.

But whatever the administration is planning to do in the talks or if they fail, the Iranians seem determined to prepare themselves to withstand any pressure from the West. They are secure in the knowledge that Obama will never use force against them and that America’s allies and partners in the negotiations will crumble even if the president will not. Under those circumstances they have little incentive to be reasonable in the talks.

President Obama is reluctantly bringing the U.S. into the war on ISIS. But unless he wakes up and starts acting in a manner that will cause the Iranians to fear the consequences of trying to keep their nuclear program, he may face an even more dangerous conflict against a country on the verge of gaining a nuke.

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