By design or accident, it is increasingly clear that the centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s second-term foreign policy is a nuclear agreement with Iran. Whether Obama can succeed, however, now depends on Congress staying out of the negotiations.
Over the last few weeks, 16 Democratic senators have supported a bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. They have defied the White House’s intense campaign to block Congress from adding new conditions to any deal.
In this way, Obama is the victim of an increasingly craven Washington—where members of his own party are abandoning him out of political expedience. At the same time, the White House is also a victim of its sometimes erratic responses to events in the Middle East.
For the last six years, the president has repeatedly declared that he does not want the United States entangled in another conflict in the Middle East. As a result, allies and enemies at home and abroad, from members of Congress to Israeli and Iranian hawks, question his commitment to use force against Iran if negotiations fail.
Experts warn that the stakes are enormous. Political opportunism, maximalist positions, and mixed messages could take on a life of their own, scuttle the talks, and inadvertently spark military action.
George Perkovich, director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, lambasted the bill’s congressional sponsors in Foreign Affairs. He accused the Democratic senators Robert Menendez and Charles Schumer, and the Republican senator Mark Kirk, of reckless grandstanding. “The Menendez-Kirk-Schumer bill may be politically expedient,” Perkovich wrote, “but it is also entirely unnecessary and dangerous.”
Much of the Democrats’ maneuvering is old-fashioned political posturing. All the Democratic officeholders now supporting the sanctions bill, David Weigel noted in Slate Tuesday, face tough re-election battles. Rejecting calls from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to support the new sanctions bill could make them vulnerable to attacks of capitulating to Iran. So far, Democrats from “safer, bluer” turf—including Senators Tim Kaine and Chris Murphy—are not supporting the bill.
Ambition also plays a role here. Schumer, who is safe in New York, is looking to succeed Senator Harry Reid as majority leader. His chief rival for this job, Senator Dick Durbin, who was the senior senator from Illinois when Obama was the junior senator, is backing the administration.
Democrats who support the new sanctions bill claim that their goal is to give Obama greater leverage in talks with Tehran. But Perkovich and other experts warn that the proposed sanctions threaten to spark a tit-for-tat cycle of escalation.
As American hard-liners saber rattle, Iranian hard-liners are saber rattling back. If Congress does pass the new sanctions bill, a senior member of the Iranian parliament has threatened, his nation would respond by beginning to enrich uranium to 60 percent—a level close to that needed for a nuclear bomb.
The major unresolved issue—and the biggest threat to a comprehensive deal—is whether Iran should be allowed any enrichment capability. The White House has signaled that it would accept a tightly monitored program in Iran—one that enriches uranium only to the level used for energy and research. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and hawkish members of Congress argue that increased sanctions will force the regime to give up enrichment or collapse.