President Obama’s ardent opposition to new congressional trigger sanctions on Iran is making headlines. In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, President Obama stated:
“[S]anctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails – alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again. It doesn’t make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress. The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom.”
Congress, on the other hand, specifically Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN), are at odds with the president and his administration. In Wednesday’s committee hearing, Iran Nuclear Negotiations: Status of Talks and the Role of Congress, Senators Corker and Mendez made their cases for their respective proposed legislation: Corker insisted that Congress get a final up or down say on whatever agreement is made by the P5+1 and Iran. Menendez, as captain of team-new sanctions, was emphatic about implementing hard-and-fast trigger sanctions if negotiators are unable to reach a deal with Iran.
Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen testified at the hearing on behalf of their administration.
Senator Menendez was the only member to come out in strong support of new sanctions legislation, perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the flurry of opposition against new sanctions that came out this week: former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and representatives from our international partners at the negotiating table, have all publicly opposed new sanctions in an effort to give diplomacy a chance.
Senators Tom Udall (D-NM), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Rand Paul (R-KY) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) all spoke out against the need for new sanctions. Senator Flake succinctly summarized the issue stating, “…I’m confused by the notion that some would want to impose additional sanction while negotiations are going on recognizing and stating that the purpose of sanctions is to bring people to the negotiating table.”
With regards to Senator Corker’s proposed legislation, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) asked the million-dollar question: what happens if “our partners have consented to [a deal] and the administration has consented to [a deal] but Congress rejects [it]?”
Secretary Blinken reaffirmed the importance of this question and reminded the committee that, “we’re not the only ones who have a vote in this. It is our partners, who are critical to sustaining and, if it comes to that, actually increasing sanctions.”
At a different moment during the hearing, Secretary Blinken reminded the committee that had Congress been asked to vote on the Joint Plan of Action within the first month of inception, it probably wouldn’t have passed.
Senator Murphy also pointed out the “longstanding precedent on what constitutes a treaty requiring the U.S. Congress to weigh in and what constitutes a non-treaty obligation entered into by the executive.” “I think it’s’ important for us to understand the difference between the two,” he added.
With significant pushback against the ‘trigger’ sanctions legislation proposed by Menendez amongst committee members, it is unlikely that new sanctions against Iran would do well in a vote.
Committee members who spoke out against the administration spoke as if the president is the mean popular kid who is intentionally excluding Congress from the playground game. But how can the administration engage 535 members of Congress in high-level, high-stakes diplomatic negotiations? Perhaps the big picture—how the P5+1 and the negotiating team can best get to a good deal—is bigger than Congress’ hurt feelings.