President Obama reportedly told senators at a closed-door retreat Thursday that they shouldn’t push Iran sanctions legislation because it would “undermine his authority.”
The key Democratic proponent of the sanctions, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), reportedly got into a heated exchange with the president after taking offense to the president’s suggestion that lawmakers wanted to get tough on Iran just for political gain or at the direction of well-heeled donors.
From the New York Times:
In the course of the argument, which was described as tense but generally respectful, Mr. Obama vowed to veto legislation being drafted by Mr. Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and Senator Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois, that would impose the sanctions before the multiparty talks are set to end this summer.
…His exchange with Mr. Menendez occurred near the end of a question-and-answer session after Senator Angus King of Maine — an independent who caucuses with the Democrats — asked for an update to the nuclear talks.
According to one of the senators and another person who was present, the president urged lawmakers to stop pursuing sanctions, saying such a move would undermine his authority and could derail the talks. Mr. Obama also said that such a provocative action could lead international observers to blame the Americans, rather than the Iranians, if the talks collapsed before the June 30 deadline.
The president said he understood the pressures that senators face from donors and others, but he urged the lawmakers to take the long view rather than make a move for short-term political gain, according to the senator. Mr. Menendez, who was seated at a table in front of the podium, stood up and said he took “personal offense.”
Mr. Menendez told the president that he had worked for more than 20 years to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and had always been focused on the long-term implications. Mr. Menendez also warned the president that sanctions could not be imposed quickly if Congress waited to act and the talks failed, according to two people who were present.
“It was a forceful exchange between two strong personalities,” the senator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, said. “It was not an angry exchange. It was clear, forceful, vigorous.”
As a journalist who’s covered Iran and Congress for many years, I’ve seen the frustration in those lawmakers who are trying to effect real action against the Islamic Republic, who know the roster of human rights abuses committed by the regime, who comprehended the gravity of the mullahs acquiring nuclear capability. I can only imagine the feeling of offense at the president suggesting that you’re not doing it for moral conviction but for some sort of monetary or political gain.
As for Obama’s veto threat, the likelihood of a veto-proof majority in the 113th is why the White House heaped pressure on then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to not bring it to the floor. Now Republicans have the majority in both chambers of Congress and even larger numbers. Democrats who rarely side with the GOP, such as Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) in the House and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in the Senate, will be rallying their colleagues to the sanctions cause. Repeated extensions of the negotiations deadlines and scant progress updates to Congress as Tehran benefits from sanctions relief have wiped away much of any optimism lawmakers may have felt about the administration’s strategy.
Obama will probably drop a few lines in his State of the Union address next Tuesday about how Iran is cooperating and lawmakers shouldn’t screw up his strategy. But his two arguments in the leak to the NYT — that sanctions legislation would “undermine his authority” and make other countries blame the U.S. for collapsed talks — won’t win him any friends in Congress as these reasons glaringly bypass what should be the No. 1 goal of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear capability.