The New York Times today reports, in an odd turn of phrase, that the Obama administration’s second-biggest enemy in its search for a deal with Iran is, well, the US Congress. Says the Times, the administration “is gingerly weighing a threat to the talks potentially more troublesome than the opaque leadership in Tehran: Congress.” That’s because the Senate is considering the passage of yet another round of anti-Iran sanctions, following the passage last summer of a similar bill by the House. Making explicit the fact that he understands perfectly that yet more superfluous economic sanctions now, in the midst of delicate talks with Iran, could upset the whole thing, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) said: “I understand the problem that this creates at the negotiating table.”
In other words, he understands it—and he wants to do it anyway.
Today the leaders of the US negotiating team are on Capitol Hill, trying to dissuade senators from that sort of outright sabotage. Secretary of State John Kerry, along with Wendy Sherman, are meeting with members of the Senate Banking Committee and others to beg, plead and cajole the Capitol Hill busybodies, many of whom are strongly influenced by the Israel lobby and its chief arm, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. So far, it appears that the Democratic-controlled Senate, despite its AIPAC ties, is willing to go along with White House requests to avoid interfering in the talks. Reports The Wall Street Journal:
Proponents of tougher sanctions could seek avenues beside the Banking Committee to move a measure.… Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) is likely to oppose such a move, however. Mr. Reid on Tuesday warned against attempts to force “extraneous issues” into the debate over the defense bill.
Obama administration officials have been reaching out to a number of lawmakers in recent days to tamp down any momentum for new sanctions. Mr. Kerry has personally spoken with key senators while traveling in recent days, and was to speak to top Senate Democrats on Wednesday.
As for AIPAC itself, it issued a statement saying that it won’t accept any delays in sending a wrecking ball aimed at the talks. “AIPAC continues to support congressional action to adopt legislation to further strengthen sanctions, and there will absolutely be no pause, delay or moratorium in our efforts.”
The comment on “pause, delay or moratorium” follows an effort by the White House, which recently met with American Jewish organizations, to seek exactly that: a moratorium on new anti-Iran sanctions while the talks are underway. As the AP reported on October 29:
The White House has updated Jewish and pro-Israel groups about its talks with Iran amid concerns by some of the groups about the U.S. easing sanctions pressure on Iran over its nuclear program.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, attended the meeting along with the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
The White House’s National Security Council says senior officials told Jewish leaders that the U.S. will not let Iran obtain a nuclear weapon but wants to resolve the nuclear issue through diplomacy.
The Obama administration is asking Congress to hold off on new sanctions while it pursues diplomacy. But Israel and AIPAC are pressing the administration to retain harsh economic sanctions.
That’s tricky for AIPAC, and for Israel. Because if they defy the White House and push aggressively for new sanctions and fail, it will be a major, even unprecedented defeat for AIPAC—plus, it makes outright enemies of the Obama administration and the president himself. Scuttlebutt after the White House meeting suggested that the Jewish groups (AIPAC, the ADL and the AJC) had quietly agreed to allow the negotiations to unfold without the added interference of new sanctions.