The US-Israel relationship: Senate retreat on the Iran sanctions

Israel is an important factor, but not the primary reason for this legislation.

By
January 28, 2015 22:29
Barack Obama

US President Barack Obama delivers January 2014 State of the Union address. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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I recently returned from two days of meetings and briefings with Congress, discussing the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act of 2015, co-sponsored by Senator Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) and Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey).

The legislation should be viewed as Congress’ attempt to restore its Constitutional obligation to affect American foreign policy. President Barack Obama vehemently disagrees. His foreign policy advisor, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, said that the Iranian negotiation is strictly an “executive prerogative to conclude agreements... (and does not) require formal Congressional approval.” In response, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), expressed disappointment: “What the administration is saying [is] we really don’t want Congress to play a role in one of the most important geopolitical agreements that may take place during this administration.”

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Just a few weeks ago, it appeared that there was a wave of bipartisan support for legislation that would impose sanctions only if the administration missed its third deadline to conclude a deal with Iran. The White House claimed that any such legislation would chase Iran from the negotiating table. Warmongers, they said, were leading the legislation.

Congress has good reason to distrust the administration on Iran because Obama broke his promise to work with Congress to re-impose sanctions if the July 2013 deadline passed. That deadline was extended, as was the November 2013 deadline. Congress has also been very wary, as the White House promised to halt further Iranian nuclear development in the Joint Plan of Action. There have been no American consequences for Iranian duplicity on centrifuges, plutonium, missile development or oil exports. The White House promised that any cheating would trigger sanctions.

Congress is still waiting.

Is this legislation a good policy? Yes. Is it perfect? No. However, if it were strengthened, it would not garner enough bipartisan support now or when it is supposed to be resurrected for the March deadline.

When a president stakes out an unambiguous position in his State of the Union address and promises to veto any responsive legislation, Congressional options to protect American national security interests become limited. Make no mistake about this: this is primarily about American foreign policy interests.

Israel is an important factor, but not the primary reason for this legislation.

As a reminder, a bad nuclear deal with Iran allows them to be perceived as a nuclear threshold state at the time of their choosing. That will only embolden the theocratic anti-American regime, and undermine American national security interests. America’s Sunni Arab allies, i.e. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, will inevitably respond by creating their own nuclear arsenals, which the US will be powerless to stop. The chance that one of these Sunni states could fall in a coup to radicals with Islamic State (IS) ideology is a definite possibility. It is also true that non-state Islamist actors, such as IS, Hezbollah, Hamas and Boko Haram, will have a greater chance of acquiring a nuclear device in this environment. All because we signed a bad deal with Iran.

The administration seems to have decided that a nuclear deal with Iran is the best way forward to gain Iranian support to stabilize Syria and Iraq.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

How can we trust this administration’s judgment on Iran when a year ago they told the American people that IS was an insignificant force, i.e. the “Jayvee team” of Islamic terrorists? We would become a partner to the genocidal dictator of Syria, whom we should be helping to remove, not support.

The president seems to believe that IS is our primary threat, and that as vile as Syrian President Bashar Assad is, he is a force for stability. So that would mean that the leader of the free world is aligning with Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terror. Please, Mr. President, say it isn’t so.

The fight between Congress and the White House over the Iran legislation has strained the already contentious relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.


The president and his allies have warned that pro-Israel support for this legislation will harm the US-Israel relationship.

Mr. President, please get over your personal animosity to the Israeli prime minister, and please stop your advisors from continuing ad hominem attacks against the democratically elected leader of an irreplaceable ally for American strategic and intelligence interests in the region. Furthermore, it is not representative of the strong support of the American people for the Jewish state.

The current Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015 legislation is a case study of the tension that exists in Washington between good policy and politics.

Based on policy alone, many Democratic senators may want to support the Kirk-Menendez Iran legislation, but the president has made their choice one of politics over policy.

In response to the president’s ultimatum in the State of the Union speech, House Speaker John Boehner invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress on the issue. This was certainly a poke in the eye to the president.

Of course, every opposition party that wants to defeat the prime minister has used the president’s threats as proof that Netanyahu is personally destroying the US-Israel relationship. The anti-Israel groups have also piled on.

But it is hypocritical of Obama to say it is inappropriate for the Israeli leader to accept an invitation from Congress to speak about his nation’s fears regarding Iran, but still ask the British prime minister to lobby Democratic senators not to vote for the Kirk-Menendez legislation.

The president certainly would like Netanyahu’s party to lose in the next election.

However, the president’s actions may actually help the Likud. In a liberal democracy, more times than not the people will respond to attacks against their own leader with support, rather than distance. Obama’s instantaneous refusal to meet with Netanyahu when he visits the US in March will more likely help rather than hurt Likud’s chances to form the next government.

The president desperately wants this deal to be his foreign policy legacy. The Iranians know that. They also realize that, despite threats to the contrary, the US twice has extended the talks instead of imposing sanctions. The Iranians are also fully aware that the president misled the American people in his State of the Union speech when he said the Iranian nuclear program has been halted during the talks. Facts betray the presidential rhetoric. Since the Joint Plan of Action was signed in November 2013, the Iranians continue to build out the plutonium plant at Arak, develop advanced centrifuges like the IR-8, and produce enough 3.5% uranium for two bombs. Missile development to deliver a nuclear device went on unabated.

The Kirk-Menendez legislation would only re-impose sanctions if this third deadline were missed. Sanctions helped bring the Iranians to the table. Today’s low price of oil, which has burdened the Iranian economy, should be America’s leverage. Yet, the Iranians are calling the shots, with the president’s team begging for a deal. However, a bad deal will haunt America for decades.

That is why the Kirk-Menendez bill is important. Congress should pass it as soon as the March 24th deadline passes.

The author is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political and Information Network), a Middle East research analysis read by members of Congress, their foreign policy advisors, members of the Knesset, journalists and organizational leaders.

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