The White House on Thursday threw down the gauntlet against members of the Senate who are pushing for a new round of sanctions on Iran, saying a new sanctions bill will push the country to war and daring them to “be up front with the American public” and say whether or not they support military action against Tehran.
Currently a group of senators, led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ), is circulating a new bill that would increase the unilateral sanctions the United States has laid upon Iran for its nuclear enrichment program. Many argue that the bill — though its provisions include waivers to delay sanctions implementation for one year — would violate the spirit of the interim agreement set down in November.
Before the ink was dry on the accord, Congress has been attempting to enact a new round of sanctions that could cause the whole delicate structure to collapse before the interim deal could even be implemented. On Thursday, the White House issued its most direct warning to Congress yet. “This bill is in direct contradiction to the Administration’s work to peacefully resolve the international community’s concerns with Iran’s nuclear program,” National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said in a statement. “We know that this proposed legislation would divide the international community, drive the Iranians to take a harder line, and possibly end negotiations.”
“If Congress passes this bill, it will be proactively taking an action that will make diplomacy less likely to succeed,” Meehan continued. “The American people have been clear that they prefer a peaceful resolution to this issue. 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. 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.”
Meehan’s challenge is the latest volley in the White House’s campaign against Congress and outside groups pressing for more sanctions, and ultimately, military action against Iran, in an effort to give negotiators the space needed to work. Press Secretary Jay Carney in November, when the round of talks that produced the interim deal were set to begin, told reporters referring to Congressional bluster on Iran, “The American people do not want a march to war.” And prior to his Hawaii vacation last month, Obama said in his departing press conference that Congress in pushing for new sanctions was playing the “politics of trying to look tough.”
“The President has been clear that he has a responsibility to fully test whether we can achieve a comprehensive solution through diplomatic means, before he pursues alternatives,” Meehan concluded. “Passing new sanctions legislation right now will undermine our efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution.”
In the meantime, Menendez’s bill since its introduction has certainly gained co-sponsors — almost all Republican, belying its initial promise of wide bipartisanship. Menendez is currently out on a limb not just with the Obama administration but with his fellow Democratic chairs, as ten of them sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) asking him to hold off on any new sanctions legislation coming to the floor without consulting them.