How Obama Won the War on Iran Sanctions

A month ago, the president was on the outs — even among Democrats. Today, he’s quelled critics and getting his chance to make negotiations work.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), shown in September, on Thursday joined 23 other senators in introducing legislation that would threaten new sanctions against Iran.
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
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Stacy Kaper
Feb. 2, 2014, 8:14 a.m.

The push for new sanc­tions on Ir­an has stalled. The Demo­crats who bucked Pres­id­ent Obama to back the sanc­tions bill are back­ped­al­ing migh­tily — no longer even pre­tend­ing they’re push­ing Harry Re­id to hold a vote on the meas­ure. And while there’s still plenty of chest-pound­ing and pos­tur­ing, the de­bate’s end res­ult seems clear: The Sen­ate will wait, at least so long as the ne­go­ti­ations move in the right dir­ec­tion.

That’s a full flip from just more than a month ago. Be­fore the Decem­ber re­cess, the Sen­ate’s pro-sanc­tions fac­tion was sur­ging. Sen­at­ors — in­clud­ing Demo­crats who are typ­ic­ally Obama loy­al­ists — were agree­ing with Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu’s claim that the nuc­le­ar ne­go­ti­ations with Ir­an bordered on ca­pit­u­la­tion.

So how did Obama — a sup­posedly feck­less pres­id­ent when it comes to hand­ling Con­gress — turn the tide?

Obama’s in-per­son, all-hands-on-deck ad­vocacy cam­paign with the Sen­ate ap­pears to have ad­vanced his cause, but it’s not that simple.

The pres­id­ent com­bined tan­gible de­vel­op­ments abroad with fer­vent sup­port from the Left, and used it to win out over a frac­tur­ing Is­rael lobby. In the pro­cess, he won — at least for now — a for­eign policy vic­tory just as his crit­ics were in­sist­ing Obama’s age of in­flu­ence was over.

“It’s a com­bin­a­tion of one side not do­ing that much and the oth­er side do­ing a lot. The AIPAC guys have not been call­ing us and usu­ally we would be hear­ing from them,” a Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate aide said. AIPAC is short­hand for the Amer­ic­an Is­rael Pub­lic Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, Wash­ing­ton’s best-known pro-Is­rael lobby group.

Obama star­ted by reach­ing out to Con­gress in their house and his: He sent en­voys, in­clud­ing Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry, to Cap­it­ol Hill, and he in­vited key play­ers to a White House meet­ing to make a case that in­de­pend­ent Sen. An­gus King of Maine labeled “in­cred­ibly power­ful.”

But out­reach on Ir­an is noth­ing new. What is dif­fer­ent this time is that, un­like with past rounds of sanc­tions against Ir­an where the in­ter­play has been more the­or­et­ic­al, the Is­lam­ic re­pub­lic is ac­tu­ally at the ne­go­ti­at­ing table, at least go­ing through the mo­tions of en­ter­tain­ing the dis­mant­ling of its nuc­le­ar-weapons cap­ab­il­it­ies. Tre­mend­ous skep­ti­cism re­mains that the talks will ul­ti­mately work — in­clud­ing from in­side the ad­min­is­tra­tion — but the on­go­ing talks at least give con­cerned sen­at­ors an al­tern­at­ive.

And then there was the re­sur­gent pro­gress­ive move­ment that cap­it­al­ized on a war-weary pub­lic to push Demo­crats in Obama’s dir­ec­tion. Mo­ve­On.org, Daily Kos, The Huff­ing­ton Post, and oth­er lib­er­al me­dia out­lets have mo­bil­ized against Demo­crats who sup­por­ted sanc­tions, ac­cus­ing them of un­der­min­ing Obama with war­mon­ger­ing and ask­ing, “Where’s the an­ti­war Left?”

Fi­nally, Obama was the be­ne­fi­ciary of weakened op­pos­i­tion. The Is­rael lobby has suc­ceeded in in­flu­en­cing Ir­an policy for dec­ades, but it’s cur­rently in a state of up­heav­al. AIPAC has not been beat­ing down doors can­vassing Cap­it­ol Hill in a con­cer­ted cam­paign as it has in the past, and J Street — AIPAC’s young­er, rising coun­ter­weight — is mak­ing the case against sanc­tions.

“The bot­tom line is that more and more mem­bers want to give the ad­min­is­tra­tion the space they are ask­ing for to try to ne­go­ti­ate a deal with Ir­an. If it doesn’t work they’ll be­gin to ratchet up the sanc­tions more,” a former seni­or Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate aide said. “I be­lieve the ad­min­is­tra­tion now has the space they are look­ing for.”

An­oth­er Sen­ate aide agreed that out­side forces are mak­ing a dif­fer­ence.

“The pres­id­ent’s base has gone all-in with his party, cashed in every chit pos­sible, ap­plied every pos­sible pres­sure point on Demo­crats, used mes­saging and rhet­or­ic that fires up the lib­er­al base, and ac­tiv­ated grass roots to tar­get Demo­crats and make them afraid of this bill from the left,” said the aide. “Un­for­tu­nately it’s turned it par­tis­an, and we’ll see if Re­pub­lic­ans will take the next step.”

The im­pact of Demo­crats grow­ing gun-shy could have im­plic­a­tions for the GOP agenda. The House passed ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions against Ir­an in Ju­ly, be­fore the cur­rent ne­go­ti­ations were an­nounced. House GOP lead­ers have since flir­ted with bring­ing up the pending Sen­ate sanc­tions bill, but have been con­cerned about los­ing Demo­crats and thus los­ing any im­pact by turn­ing an in­ten­ded bi­par­tis­an mes­sage par­tis­an. At the same time, House Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers have struggled to con­vince seni­or Demo­crats to push for­ward a less con­tro­ver­sial, bi­par­tis­an non­bind­ing res­ol­u­tion on Ir­an.

Mat­thew Duss, a policy ana­lyst with the lib­er­al Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress, ar­gued that the out­reach from lib­er­al groups has made an im­pact by tap­ping in­to war fa­tigue.

“Without ques­tion, there has been great work done by pro­gress­ive or­gan­iz­a­tions, com­mu­nic­at­ing with poli­cy­makers and le­gis­lat­ors some of the prob­lems with the sanc­tions bill and ur­ging the act­iv­ists and grass­roots com­munity and con­stitu­ents to call their own elec­ted mem­bers,” he said. “You’ve seen the re­sur­rec­tion of ele­ments of the Ir­aq War Co­ali­tion on the left who re­mem­ber that we got ourselves in­to a huge mess in the Middle East are send­ing this mes­sage: ‘Let’s not do that again.’ That’s a very strong mo­tiv­at­ing factor.”

Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ives track­ing the is­sue said that as Demo­crats have had time to di­gest the le­gis­la­tion, the de­tails have giv­en them cold feet. The bill, for ex­ample, does more than simply im­pose ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions if Ir­an breaks its agree­ment. It also calls for au­thor­iz­ing mil­it­ary force to sup­port Is­rael in any mil­it­ary con­flict against Ir­an.

“The re­cog­ni­tion that the lan­guage was so broadly writ­ten that pas­sage of the le­gis­la­tion could in fact lead to the pos­sib­il­ity of a con­front­a­tion with Ir­an is what tipped the scales,” the former seni­or Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate aide said. “That lan­guage was writ­ten pretty strongly. The more folks delved in­to it, the more con­cerned they be­came that it puts the U.S. in a very ag­gress­ive pos­ture. Every­one wants to do everything they can to sup­port Is­rael, but more folks are be­gin­ning to look in­wards again and are very war-weary.”

Of the 59 co­spon­sors on the le­gis­la­tion, 16 are Demo­crats. But it is hard to find any Demo­crat­ic co­spon­sor who is eager to talk about the bill these days. Many dodged ques­tions, while oth­ers such as Sens. Richard Blu­menth­al of Con­necti­c­ut, Joe Manchin of West Vir­gin­ia, Chris­toph­er Coons of Delaware, and Ben Cardin of Mary­land are frank that they are not push­ing for a vote.

Manchin said he in­ten­ded the bill to send a mes­sage of sup­port for Is­rael and un­der­score a goal of upend­ing Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar-weapons am­bi­tions. But he said that a vote could ac­tu­ally cost his spon­sor­ship of the bill.

“I nev­er in­ten­ded for that bill to come to a vote and de­bate,” he said. “If they start mov­ing it for­ward I might need to start mak­ing a de­cision about wheth­er I stay on the bill or not.”

Even Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Robert Men­en­dez, who is the lead Demo­crat spon­sor­ing sanc­tions le­gis­la­tion, is non­com­mit­tal about wheth­er he wants to see his bill be­come law.

When asked if it was still his goal to push for a vote on the bill, he sidestepped.

“It is still my in­ten­tion to work to en­sure that Ir­an doesn’t get nuc­le­ar-weapons cap­ab­il­ity, which is dif­fer­ent than just nuc­le­ar weapons,” he said. “So we are con­sid­er­ing everything in­clud­ing per­us­ing the sanc­tions that we’ve laid out at some point in time to achieve that goal to make sure they don’t.”

He de­clined to elab­or­ate on what oth­er course of ac­tion he might con­sider.

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