Slandering Senators as Warmongers

Who does the White House see as the real enemy - Iran or the Senate?

James Kirchick
James Kirchick
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James Kirchick
James Kirchick

Should a military conflagration erupt in the Middle East over the Iranian nuclear program, Iran will not be deemed responsible, but rather those American supporters of sanctions aimed at preventing it from obtaining nuclear weapons.

That is the message coming from the Obama administration, which recently unleashed a furious attack on Senators calling for the potential application of additional sanctions on Iran to ensure honest implementation of the Joint Plan of Action negotiated in Geneva last November. That agreement provides Iran with sanctions relief in exchange for freezing part of its nuclear program.

“If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be up front with the American public and say so,” Bernadette Meehan, National Security Council spokeswoman, said in a statement last Thursday. “Otherwise, it’s not clear why any member of Congress would support a bill that possibly closes the door on diplomacy and makes it more likely that the United States will have to choose between military options or allowing Iran’s nuclear program to proceed.”

The bill in question is the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013, which currently has 59 cosponsors, including 16 members of President Obama’s own party, most prominent among them the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez, who co-authored and introduced the legislation. In lashing out at the bill’s cosponsors, demonizing those in Congress who disagree with the administration’s tactics on how to achieve the shared goal of preventing a nuclear Iran, the White House is slandering the majority of the United States Senate as warmongers.

But the Senate has good reasons to want to pass this legislation. The Joint Plan of Action contains no explicit mechanisms to enforce Iran's compliance, but rather creates a “Joint Commission”—that includes Iran—for the P5+1 to monitor implementation. Congress, which legislatively created the sanctions architecture, is being cut out from a process with Iran that could lead to its dismantlement.

Prior to the implementation agreement, Iran violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the Joint Plan, continuing efforts to research and design more advanced and efficient centrifuges to enrich uranium, producing enriched uranium, and advancing construction on its heavy water reactor in Arak, despite the White House fact sheet stipulating that it had “committed to no further advances of its activities at Arak and to halt progress on its plutonium track.”

President Hasan Rohani, lauded in establishment circles as a “moderate,” has said that Iran will never end its enrichment of uranium, even though multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions require it to do so (requirements that were either not made clear to, or ignored by, the Iranians, who left the talks declaring that their “right to enrich” had been acknowledged). And Iran continues its ballistic missile program.

The Senate bill supports – and seeks to strengthen – the Joint Plan of Action that the Obama administration is touting. The aspect which so annoys the White House is the inclusion of prospective sanctions should the Iranians not abide by their end of the deal. But so long as Iran negotiates and behaves in good faith, they will receive the sanctions relief so generously offered by the P5+1.

The history of nuclear negotiations with Iran augurs against any assumption of good faith on their part, which is why the majority of the United States Senate supports the sanctions bill. “We do not like to negotiate under duress,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif complained to Time Magazine in December. Such “duress” would not be necessary, of course, were the P5+1 powers negotiating with a transparent, democratic state that abided by its international commitments. Instead, we’re dealing with a revolutionary theocracy that is the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism and that time and again has shown itself to be reliable only in the sense that it is reliably deceptive. Which is why the White House’s playing lawyer for Iran is so peculiar. Not for nothing did the Daily Beast note that the administration’s rhetoric “echoes warnings from Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif.”

It is rare to see Congress act so assertively against a president’s will in foreign policy, that generally being a realm where the Executive Branch is allowed to exercise its prerogative. Yet the Senate, many Democrats included, has learned over time to be skeptical of the administration and its promises. After all, the president ignored his own 'red line'regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria; why should anyone take him seriously with regard to Iran?

“We share a common goal, which is to deprive Iran of the opportunity of acquiring a nuclear weapon and to do so through negotiations,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “That’s why we built the sanctions regime.” Yet, for years, the White House worked against the toughening of Iran sanctions, continually alleging that they would make diplomacy more difficult, when, in actual fact, they were the decisive factor in making last year’s negotiations with the Iranians possible.

What’s most remarkable about the administration’s latest offensive is its preemptive pinning of blame on domestic political critics, and not the terror-sponsoring theocrats in Tehran, for any potential military hostilities. This is preposterous not only because the Senate sanctions bill contains no language endorsing military action. It is as though the White House sees Iran as the competition, and democratically elected American Senators as the enemy.

The author is a Haaretz columnist and a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @jkirchick

Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, December 11, 2013, following a briefing on the talks between Iran and western powers.Credit: Reuters
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Washington, December 11, 2013, following a briefing on the talks between Iran and western powers.Credit: Reuters

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