House Dem Sees Years-Long Iran Fight Coming to a Head

Sherman, a seven-term congressman, faces a tough Democratic primary June 5 against Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. This is the first year California voters will experience an open primary.

Today, Sherman met with the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) to persuade it to exclude all Iranian banks. He also looks for sanctions "that will have their effect very quickly," such as keeping Iran from obtaining replacement parts for all of the Western equipment they've acquired over the years.

At the AIPAC panel, the congressman alluded to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey's comments last month on Iran. "It is said this government is rational," Sherman said. "Might be. Stalin was probably classified as rational."

After the panel, I asked for his thoughts on Dempsey's remarks.

"Depending on what your definition of rational is, it's not a false statement," Sherman said."Just because a government's changed and if you're just on the edge of being rational today, there's no rule that says your change is going to be toward rationality; you can go further away."

The examples he gave in his speech were the Stalinist regimes of the Soviet Union, where Mikhail Gorbachev gave in at the end of the Cold War, and Cambodia, which devolved into genocide under Pol Pot.

I noted that House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) told me before she took the gavel in the 112th Congress that she wanted Iran to be “No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3” on the panel's to-do list.

"I think the committee has spent a lot of time focusing on Iran," Sheman said. "I think that America as a whole has been way to slow to implement sanctions that are way too mild. I would say that Ileana is one of those pushing the envelope in the right direction. She's not inclined to push the envelope to the point where you might break it and she's not inclined to pass legislation that the administration would violently oppose.

"But -- it's nice to be a senator -- I give a lot of credit to Menendez and Kirk for forcing the administration to sanction the Central Bank of Iran, something [the White House has] had the power to do for many years and have chosen not to do," he added. "And I should never criticize the Obama administration without pointing out that they're much much tougher on Iran than was the Bush administration."

Sherman, like many other Democrats, has joined hands with his colleagues across the aisle on numerous Iran measures, demonstrating once again the "overwhelming" bipartisan nature of congressional support for Israel and getting tough on Tehran.

"But the more biting the sanctions, the more disruptive, the more they anger multinational corporations, the less unity there is," he said. "So a resolution saying containment is not an option is consistent with the president's speech, whereas preventing General Electric from fixing the engines on the Air Iran aircraft -- I don't know how that's going to turn out, but it's not going to be overwhelming in either direction. And that's just the skirmish line.

"If you want to go to a point to say any company that sells a spare part to Iran is going to be prohibited from any contract with the United States, and apply that to an entire corporate family, not just its subsidiaries but all the corporations owned by the same parent, that's not going to be overwhelming," he said. "The sanctions on the cutting edge, I'll be happy if we get them passed by one percent. I don't need 100 percent."

I asked the question I'd been wondering the whole conference, in regards to the attendees but especially directed toward the members of the House and Senate who were fielding concerns that Obama's speech was just a speech.

In 2010, Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and Mike Pence (R-Ind.) led a congressional letter telling  Obama, "The hour is late. Now is the time for action."

"Mr. President, you have stated this issue is a priority for your administration," the letter, signed by Sherman and 362 House colleagues, stated in part. "You have attempted to engage the Iranian regime for over a year. You have gone to the United Nations Security Council in an effort to impose tough new sanctions on Iran. But time is not on our side. We cannot allow those who would oppose or delay sanctions to govern either the timing or content of our efforts."

It's now 2012, I said to Sherman. Is there a point when national-security-minded Democrats break with the president?

"To some extent the Menendez-Kirk amendment did not authorize the administration to do something they wanted to do; it forced the administration to take an action that they had declined to take earlier," Sherman said. "I think we already have people pushing the administration further or faster than is its natural inclination."