Just last week, it looked as if the United States Senate was close to bringing a bipartisan bill to the floor that could have potentially threatened the success of the Obama Administration’s nuclear talks with Iran. The legislation, written by Democratic Robert Menendez and Republican Mark Kirk, would blacklist an even greater amount of Iran’s economy if its leaders backed out of the interim agreement signed last November or failed to arrive at a comprehensive deal to dismantle a significant portion the Islamic country’s uranium enrichment infrastructure. When the bill was first introduced, it drew overwhelming support from both parties, with 59 senators signing on as co-sponsors — one vote shy of the supermajority necessary to override a filibuster.
Yet thanks to months of tenacious behind the scenes lobbying from White House officials and a public veto threat from President Barack Obama during his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, the sanctions bill that could otherwise have breezed through the Senate has lost momentum.
In his annual address, the president doubled down on his negotiating strategy with Iran by issuing one of the strongest threats a president can make to members of Congress: the threat of a veto. “The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible,” Obama said, referring to the perceived chance to arrive at a deal with Iran after years of deadlock. “But let me be clear. If this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed.”
This has been Obama’s position throughout his presidency. Enacting sanctions when they have finally brought Iran to the negotiating table would be a dangerously foolish act, he believes, akin to diplomatic sabotage.
Indeed, as Iranian negotiators have promised, the passing of additional restrictions on their economy would be reason for them to pull out of the talks.
More sanctions now could also jeopardize America’s credibility in the eyes of the international community as the world wonders whether the United States truly want to arrive at a resolution of the conflict. The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany who are negotiating with Iran have promised not to level new sanctions against it while the talks are in process. Passage of the sanctions bill would be in direct violation of that agreement.
Before Obama’s State of the Union, members of Congress brushed that argument aside, claiming Iran could not be trusted to live up to its agreements either. The threat of a veto appears to have changed at least some lawmakers’ calculus.
If senators from the president’s own party a few weeks ago were willing to buck the administration on its signature foreign policy achievement of the last year, some of them no longer appear to be sticking to that position. Several Democrats who co-sponsored the Iran Nuclear Free Act are backtracking from their initial support and heeding Obama’s call for a delay as negotiations press forward.
“We want to give the administration the time it needs to negotiate,” Colorado’s senator Michael Bennet told The Huffington Post. “I’ve always been comfortable with the fact that our first preference is a negotiated agreement,” said Ben Cardin, the senator from Maryland. West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat, told MSNBC, “I did not sign [the sanctions bill] with the intention that it would ever be voted upon or used upon while we were negotiating.”
Persuading the Iranians to arrive at a long-term agreement that would roll back their nuclear program is, in the president’s words, a “fifty-fifty” proposition. But with his ultimatum in front of the Congress, it looks as if he bought himself more time to beat those odds.