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.
Laura Rozen, reporting for Al-Monitor, penned a detailed report on the talks between the White House and the Jewish groups, at which Sherman was joined by Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, and two top White House aides, Antony Blinken and Ben Rhodes.
Following the talks, there was conflicting information about whether or not the Jewish groups (which, collectively, make up the bosses of the Israel lobby) had agreed to a “pause” in their lobbying efforts. According to Haaretz, the liberal Israeli daily, the four groups did indeed agree to a moratorium:
Though they refrained from describing it as “a deal” or a quid pro quo, sources familiar with the meeting said they had agreed to a limited “grace period” only after hearing assurances from the Administration that it had no intention of easing sanctions or of releasing Iranian funds that have been “frozen” in banks around the world.
That was later denied by the same groups, according to The Jerusalem Post:
A report published in Haaretz on Friday claiming that US Jewish leaders have agreed to halt their lobbying efforts in support of a new sanctions bill against Iran has been roundly denied by their organizations.
“No one has given any commitment to make some public moratorium,” said sources with an organization represented at the meeting, “categorically denying” that any such commitment was given.
However, in an on-the-record interview with Haaretz, the ADL’s Abraham Foxman (who attended the White House gathering on October 29) confirmed the cease-fire:
ADL National Director Abe Foxman has confirmed that leaders of major Jewish organizations have agreed on a limited “time out” during which they will not push for stronger sanctions on Iran.
“That means that we are not lobbying for additional sanctions and we are not lobbying for less sanctions,” Foxman told Haaretz, as well as US media outlets.
Foxman was responding to a report in Haaretz on Friday that cited understandings reached among the leaders of four major Jewish organizations who participated in a Monday meeting at the White House with a group of senior White House officials led by National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
Foxman was specific, too:
Foxman made clear, however, that the hiatus is only tactical in nature. “We still believe that sanctions have worked and that additional sanctions would also work,” Foxman said, “but the Administration feels otherwise. They believe that further sanctions at this time would harm prospects for a diplomatic solution.”
“We didn’t change our positions and they didn’t change their positions. But we’re not going to be out there before the end of the next two meetings of the P5+1 with Iran.”
The risk for the Israel lobby is enormous. If it tries to wreck the talks and fails, because members of Congress—especially Democrats in the Senate—sanely agree to postpone a new round of sanctions, it will look powerless and ineffective. So it has to tread carefully, all while being pushed, hard, by Netanyahu and Co. in Israel.
According to Politico, Senate Democrats are willing to give the White House room to negotiate:
Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) said his panel will not draft new economic penalties toward Iran until the Senate has fully digested that briefing. Even then, Johnson said he will defer to his leadership and the White House to give him the green light. …
Two members of Democratic leadership, Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Chuck Schumer of New York, both said they remain undecided on pursuing new sanctions and will continue to talk to top administration brass.
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