The State Department scrambled on Monday to respond to a weekend New York Times scoop revealing that the Obama administration intends to bypass Congress in reducing sanctions on Iran – the Times‘ exact language was that “President Obama will do everything in his power to avoid letting Congress vote on” an agreement with the Islamic republic – as both lawmakers expressed opposition and journalists pressed for clarification. The Times had quoted a senior official declaring that the White House “wouldn’t seek congressional legislation in any comprehensive agreement for years,” and gestured toward what is expected to be widespread opposition on the Hill to being frozen out:
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat, said over the weekend that, “If a potential deal does not substantially and effectively dismantle Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program, I expect Congress will respond. An agreement cannot allow Iran to be a threshold nuclear state.” He has sponsored legislation to tighten sanctions if no agreement is reached by Nov. 24.
Bipartisan majorities of lawmakers have demanded that Congress be given the ability to help shape an acceptable agreement, and most analysts had long assumed that the administration would need to seek legislation rolling back previously passed financial restrictions on Tehran.
The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) – a group that has been accused by members of Congress of peddling “propaganda put out by the Iranian regime” – had explicitly called on the White House to work with Congress in unwinding sanctions, prompting Congressional Quarterly (CQ) to identify the lobby’s stance as a rare point of convergence between opposite sides of the Iran debate. Subsequent months had seen a steady erosion in the West’s negotiating posture toward Iran, as American diplomats reportedly caved on Iranian red lines involving uranium enrichment, plutonium production, and ballistic missile development.
The Obama administration is now thought to have among other things given up on the long-standing demand – codified in half a dozen United Nations Security Council resolutions – that Iran dismantle centrifuges used for uranium enrichment. Bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate months ago identified the condition as a prerequisite to any acceptable deal with Iran, and lawmakers have started reacting to Sunday’s Times story by vowing to fight “unilateral action” on sanctions by the White House:
— Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (@RosLehtinen) October 20, 2014
The administration for its part is suggesting that Congress will certainly have a role to play in reducing sanctions, but White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Shultz told reporters at a gaggle today that he couldn’t describe that role because “it’s way too early to speculate on which sanctions will require legislative versus executive action to suspend or lift.” The point was echoed by State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf, who told reporters that it was “too early” to identify which sanctions the administration would seek to lift in the near-term.
Journalists pointed out that in fact the sides have drafted precisely worded documents lining up specific Iranian concessions with specific financial relief, and that in any case a senior State Department spokesperson told reporters last week that negotiators “have isolated” the precise sanctions in play. Associated Press (AP) journalist Bradley Klapper later took to Twitter to highlight that juxtaposition:
Last wk in Vienna @StateDept official asked if admin h/ isolated sanctions to lift in Iran deal. Answer: ‘We have.’ Today: 2soon2 speculate
— Brad Klapper (@bklapperAP) October 20, 2014
Meanwhile the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog (IAEA) announced that Iran was continuing to deny the agency access to areas where the international community suspects military-related atomic work – including work related to the creation of nuclear warheads – has been conducted. Reuters described comments made Monday by IAEA chief Yukiya Amano as indicating that “little headway [had been made] in an inquiry into suspected bomb research,” and Associated Press assessed that Amano’s comments were aimed at “sounding a note of caution about Iran’s claims that it is not interested in nuclear arms.” Harf described the IAEA chief’s concerns as “nothing new.”
[Photo: The White House/ YouTube]