Congress is taking the lead on tougher sanctions for Iran

Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry testifies on agreements over Iran's nuclear programs, before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, December 10, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • It does not take much time or effort to increase the level of enrichment from current to bomb-ready levels.

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  • So Iran has more than six months, as things currently stand, to advance its nuclear program.

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  • The public, which tended to give Obama and his foreign policy positive marks during his first term, has tended to oppose Kerry’s Iran agreement.

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  • 6 of the 13 Dem co-sponsors are up for re-election in 2014, as are 4 of the 13 Repubs.

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Sometimes it seems like things are upside down.

Barack Obama and his Obamacare administrators are continually making laws, through blogpost (suspending the employer mandate) and bulletin (suspending the individual mandate).

This even though the Framers of the Constitution said that it was Congress that would make the laws; the president is just supposed to faithfully execute them.

Meanwhile, members of Congress are, on one issue, moving to make foreign policy--something that for more than a century has been largely left to presidents.

This became apparent last week when 26 senators, 13 Democrats and 13 Republicans, co-sponsored a bill to increase sanctions on Iran.

This is not a new idea. The House voted to increase sanctions last July. And it was sanctions, and the threat of increased sanctions, that surely drove Iran's leaders to the negotiating table where they hammered out an interim agreement with Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva in November.

That agreement, however, left members of Congress of both parties — and the public — dissatisfied. For the first time, the U.S. recognized, tacitly, Iran’s right to continue possessing the centrifuges used to enrich uranium up to the levels needed to produce a nuclear bomb.

It does not take much time or effort to increase the level of enrichment from current to bomb-ready levels.

The agreement leaves a final agreement to be negotiated in six months. But that six-month period only begins when some still unsettled issues are agreed on.

So Iran has more than six months, as things currently stand, to advance its nuclear program — during which time sanctions will be softened and economic pressure on the Mullah regime will be reduced.

The public, which tended to give Obama and his foreign policy positive marks during his first term, has tended to oppose Kerry’s Iran agreement, polls show. Evidently many ordinary citizens who don’t follow issues closely share the fear of many well-informed members of Congress that the United States is giving up too much and gaining too little.

The sponsors of the Senate sanctions legislation include leading Democrats like Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez and New York's Chuck Schumer, who has been something of a consigliere for Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Six of the 13 Democratic co-sponsors are up for re-election in 2014, as are four of the 13 Republicans (another Republican is retiring).

The top Republican is Illinois's Mark Kirk, a consistent leader on the issue. He is joined with Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte, who work together on many foreign policy issues, and prominent freshmen Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

The Senate bill would impose increased sanctions six months after the Geneva agreement goes into effect unless Iran agreed to certain specified conditions. Top House leaders, including Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce and ranking Democrat Eliot Engel, seem ready to pass similar or identical legislation.

Backers argue that it would give administration negotiators leverage on Iran to gain agreement on objectives the president has often said he seeks.

The administration doesn’t agree. White House press secretary Jay Carney said flatly last week that the president would veto the bill. Administration lobbyists have been beseeching Democrats not to back it.

Their arguments don’t track with their stated objectives. They say they fear Iran will walk out of negotiations if more sanctions are threatened. But tough sanctions are what brought them to the table.

They say new sanctions could be passed later. But the Senate bill doesn’t put them into effect until later.

They argue that Iran won’t ever agree to end uranium enrichment. But the whole point of sanctions is to get the Mullah regime to do something it doesn’t want to do. If getting to "yes" were the only objective, we might as well just accept a nuclear-armed Iran.

It’s not clear that the sanctions bill will ever get to the floor of the Senate. Even high-caliber sponsors like Menendez and Schumer may be less persuasive with Reid than calls from the White House.

But it is clear that there are majorities — solid bipartisan majorities — in both houses for additional pressure on Iran and for insistence on a final agreement that ends the threat of Iranian nukes rather than one that puts it off for another day.

In this regard, Congress seems to be reflecting the will of the American people. Will the administration listen?

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  • Michael Barone, a political analyst and journalist, studies politics, American government, and campaigns and elections. The principal coauthor of the annual Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Group), he has written many books on American politics and history. Barone is also a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.

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