WASHINGTON — President Obama leaned heavily on Congress today to not take any action against Iran as the administration finally began moving on a six-month-long agreement worked out nearly two months ago.
At an Oval Office appearance with Spanish President Mariano Rajoy Brey this afternoon, Obama urged the Senate — which is quickly approaching a veto-proof majority of co-sponsors — to stand down on the bill from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and give the White House and Tehran “the time and space” for their deal to work.
“It’s going to be difficult, it’s going to be challenging, but ultimately this is how diplomacy should work,” Obama said. “…My preference is for peace and diplomacy, and this is one of the reasons why I’ve sent the message to Congress that now is not the time for us to impose new sanctions, now is the time for us to allow the diplomats and technical experts to do their work.”
“What we want to do is give diplomacy a chance, and give peace a chance.”
The White House announced Sunday the implementation of the “first step agreement” on Iran’s nuclear program.
“Beginning January 20th, Iran will for the first time start eliminating its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium and dismantling some of the infrastructure that makes such enrichment possible,” Obama said in a statement. “…In return, over the next six months the United States and our P5+1 partners — the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China, as well as the European Union –- will begin to implement modest relief so long as Iran fulfills its obligations and as we pursue a comprehensive solution to Iran’s nuclear program.”
“Unprecedented sanctions and tough diplomacy helped to bring Iran to the negotiating table, and I’m grateful to our partners in Congress who share our goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Imposing additional sanctions now will only risk derailing our efforts to resolve this issue peacefully, and I will veto any legislation enacting new sanctions during the negotiation,” he added.
But some informal whip counts put the number of “yes” votes in the upper chamber as high as 77, overriding a presidential veto. The bill currently has 59 co-sponsors and climbing.
The overwhelming bipartisan support can force Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) hand in bringing the legislation to the floor; Reid said before Thanksgiving that he supported new sanctions on the Islamic Republic but quieted down after an apparent talking-to from the White House. One aide told CNN that the bill could come to the floor the week of Obama’s State of the Union address.
Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement that he “very much” appreciates “Congress’ critical role in imposing the sanctions that brought Iran to the table, but I feel just as strongly that now is not the time to impose additional sanctions that could threaten the entire negotiating process.”
“Now is not the time for politics,” Kerry said. “Now is the time for statesmanship, for the good of our country, the region, and the world.”
The bill is even more poignant as it was crafted and introduced by Kerry’s successor on the Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez, who has expressed incredulity at how the administration can put so much trust in the regime.
Menendez wrote in a Washington Post op-ed late last week that the sanctions bill “is an act of reasonable pragmatism” acting like a “diplomatic insurance policy” for the Obama administration’s negotiations.
Since Kerry forged the agreement with Iran in November, Menendez stressed, Iran has continued construction at the Arak heavy water reactor, has built additional centrifuges and admitted it has more than originally disclosed, and fired a rocket into space and showcased long-range ballistic missile capability. The Iranian parliament is also weighing a bill to increase uranium up to 60 percent, and the Iranian walkout from negotiations when the Treasury Department blacklisted 19 companies for evading sanctions last month demonstrated the regime’s “customary bluff-and-bluster techniques.”
Iran stressed that the P5+1 agreement let them proceed with their “new generation” centrifuges for “research purposes.”
“These actions cannot be accepted as simply the price of doing business with Iran,” Menendez argued.
“Opponents of prospective sanctions against Iran argue that sanctions are like a spigot — easy to turn on and easy to turn off. But the story of sanctions, while effective, is more complicated. Passing anything in Congress takes time. Writing regulations and implementing sanctions takes even longer, and enforcement of sanctions is an ongoing process,” the senator continued.
“The American public supports diplomacy. So do I. The American public doesn’t trust the Iranian regime. Neither do I. During this pivotal time, we have a responsibility to work together across parties and branches of government in the interest of achieving U.S. national security objectives.”
The legislation’s Republican co-author, Kirk, said Sunday that the sanctions bill needs to be passed now “to ensure this process leads to the peaceful dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program.”
“Beginning January 20th, the administration will give the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism billions of dollars while allowing the mullahs to keep their illicit nuclear infrastructure in place. I am worried the administration’s policies will either lead to Iranian nuclear weapons or Israeli air strikes,” Kirk said.
“The bipartisan proposal would ensure that any existing sanctions suspended under the interim step agreement would be immediately reimposed should Iran cheat on its commitments, plan or conduct a terrorist attack against the United States, or launch a long-range ballistic missile during negotiations,” he said. “It would also give Congress the ability to reject a final agreement that does not preclude Iran from being able to produce nuclear weapons in the future.”
At the White House today, press secretary Jay Carney said he thinks the Jan. 20 implementation “makes clearer why it’s so important to refrain from taking action on further sanctions now and to rather hold in abeyance that action if and when it’s necessary and can be very effective.”
“We think that the fact that we are now at the implementation stage of the joint plan of action demonstrates that, at the very least, testing whether or not Iran is serious is the right thing to do,” he said.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said, though, that the “expected and overdue implementation only furthers a deeply flawed agreement that legitimizes Iran’s flagrant violations of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for the full suspension of its nuclear program.”
“Iran has spent the months since the initial deal was signed advancing its nuclear program. Iran’s history of cheating will require intrusive inspections to have any confidence that Iran is living up to any promises,” Cantor said. “The Obama administration must be honest with the American people about the grave threat Iran poses to U.S. interests and the interests of our closest allies, as witnessed in recent months. The U.S. and international community must confront Iran’s support of terrorists and efforts to foment instability throughout the region.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said Congress still has “many questions on how this agreement will be implemented and verified.”
“That’s particularly the case as Iran has announced in recent weeks that it would continue to advance technology needed to make fuel for nuclear weapons. I’m concerned that this agreement takes us down that path where sanctions pressure is relieved, but Iran maintains its ability to produce a nuclear weapon,” Royce said.
“Given these stakes, it’s regrettable that the president does not want to work with Congress to bolster his negotiating hand with additional sanctions, which would go into effect should Iran fail to meet its commitments. If Iran is committed to comprehensively addressing its nuclear program, there is no reason such legislation shouldn’t be welcomed.”