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
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.

What We're Following See More »
BIG CHANGE FROM WHEN HE SELF-FINANCED
Trump Enriching His Businesses with Donor Money
5 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Donald Trump "nearly quintupled the monthly rent his presidential campaign pays for its headquarters at Trump Tower to $169,758 in July, when he was raising funds from donors, compared with March, when he was self-funding his campaign." A campaign spokesman "said the increased office space was needed to accommodate an anticipated increase in employees," but the campaign's paid staff has actually dipped by about 25 since March. The campaign has also paid his golf courses and restaurants about $260,000 since mid-May.

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Variety Looks at How Michelle Obama Has Leveraged Pop Culture
7 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

“My view is, first you get them to laugh, then you get them to listen," says Michelle Obama in a new profile in Variety. "So I’m always game for a good joke, and I’m not so formal in this role. There’s very little that we can’t do that people wouldn’t appreciate.” According to writer Ted Johnson, Mrs. Obama has leveraged the power of pop culture far beyond her predecessors. "Where are the people?" she asks. "Well, they’re not reading the op-ed pieces in the major newspapers. They’re not watching Sunday morning news talk shows. They’re doing what most people are doing: They are watching TV.”

Source:
RUSSIAN HACKERS LIKELY BEHIND THE ATTACKS
New York Times, Other News Organizations Hacked
8 hours ago
THE DETAILS

The FBI and other US security agencies are currently investigating a series of computer breaches found within The New York Times and other news organizations. It is expected that the hacks were carried out by individuals working for Russian intelligence. It is believed that these cyber attacks are part of a "broader series of hacks that also have focused on Democratic Party organizations, the officials said."

Source:
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY STUDENTS PETITIONED
NLRB: Graduate Students Can Unionize
8 hours ago
THE DETAILS

In a 3-1 decision, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of Columbia University graduate students, granting them the legal right to unionize. The petition was brought by a number of teaching assistants enrolled in graduate school. This decision could pave the way for thousands of new union members, depending on if students at other schools nationwide wish to join unions. A number of universities spoke out in opposition to this possibility, saying injecting collective bargaining into graduate school could create a host of difficulties.

Source:
DIFFERENT KIND OF CONVENTION BOUNCE
Cruz Approval Ratings Underwater
10 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Following Texas Senator Ted Cruz's controversial decision not to endorse Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention, instead telling voters to "vote (their) conscience," a new poll out today shows that his approval ratings have sunk. The poll from Public Policy Polling shows that 39 percent of Texans approve of the job Cruz is doing, compared to 48 percent who don't approve. Additionally, despite winning the GOP primary in the state, the poll found that if the primary was held today, Trump would garner 52 percent of support to just 38 percent for Cruz.

Source:
×