Sen. Chris Murphy just stuck his neck way, way out for President Obama. Now he needs some help.
Murphy is among the Democrats who heeded Obama’s plea to not push new Iran sanctions legislation during international negotiations over the country’s nuclear program. The president says the push could disrupt the talks, ultimately making the region — and the United States — less safe.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, says the conciliatory approach is putting his country in peril.
And that makes life difficult for Murphy, a first-term Democrat from Connecticut, a state with a sizable Jewish population. It’s also home to outgoing American Israel Public Affairs Committee President Michael Kassen, and the state’s senior senator, Democrat Richard Blumenthal, is one of the core advocates of get-tough sanctions legislation.
“Most Senate Democrats know that this is literally a life and death situation for people in Iran, Israel, and across the region and that the right way to go about this is the path the president has suggested,” opined one Senate Democratic aide. “But you could lose an election on this issue.”
Murphy’s not up this year, but he is hoping for some help from the president during Tuesday night’s State of the Union address. If Obama can lay out a convincing case for holding off on sanctions, successfully recasting the position from “soft-on-Iran” to “smart-on-international-security,” it will help Murphy bring his constituents along as well.
“I certainly agree with the president that we should hold off on a new round of Iran sanctions, so I am hopeful that he will make the case as to why that is so important,” Murphy told National Journal.
Meanwhile, Murphy is making a concerted, even risky, effort to make his own case as well. He held a forum in Greenwich on Wednesday with constituents on both sides of the sanctions issue, and he got a taste of how high tensions run on the issue.
One attendee, who said he was a Holocaust survivor, “subtly compared” the Iranian president with Hitler and accused the U.S. of trying to “make a deal with the devil,” according to the The Advocate of Stamford.
Murphy says his Senate colleagues were curious why he would voluntarily confront such a contentious issue in a public forum. But he said he found it to be an effective tool during the health care debate in 2009 where he went so “overboard” on town halls he would “talk to people until I wore out the opposition.”
And Murphy says he remains steadfast in standing with Obama on Iran.
“My position is the logical extension of the bipartisan sanctions policy of the last five years,” Murphy said. “I thought that the whole reason we were applying tough sanctions was so that we could get Iran to the negotiating table. To me, holding off on a new round sanctions until the negotiations are over is common sense.”
Murphy argued that lawmakers are in broad agreement: If Iran walks away additional sanctions will be applied. The difference, he says, is over strategy, not policy — whether it’s more prudent to pass legislation now or in the event negotiations fall apart.
Murphy said he’s not Pollyannaish and believes odds of a deal are less than 50-50.
His bottom line is that there must be a significant expansion of the time it would take Iran to enrich fuel for a nuclear bomb, a dramatic hastening of detection time through intrusive inspections, and no allowance for heavy-water reactor capabilities. He said there must be a significant decrease in Iran’s number of centrifuges, but he is willing to entertain limited enrichment under certain conditions.
“As President Obama has said, this is not a matter of getting a deal at any cost, we are only going to agree to something that makes the region and the world safer. We are not going to get a deal for a deal’s sake.”
Regardless of what Obama says Tuesday, his Iran policy will still have vocal critics — and so will the Democrats who back it.
“I’m not convinced that anything in the State of the Union is going to give them the top cover they think they need,” said Danielle Pletka, a vice president of foreign and defense policy studies with the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Under the interim agreement, Iran is getting a break from economic sanctions and in exchange is halting the growth of its nuclear program, allowing Iran, the U.S., and other world powers six months to reach a final agreement on its nuclear capabilities.
Obama says the deal could end Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon, but Pletka and other critics complain that the deal gives Iran too much and asks for too little.
“The more that people realize how little there is to the deal the more difficult it’s going to be for the administration,” she said. “So it’s going to be up to the senior Democrats in the Senate as to whether they want to send Iran a clear message about American policy or whether they want to have the same wishy-washy message that the president has.”
The House passed a sanctions bill last summer before the current negotiations were announced and could follow up with a resolution dictating the terms of a final agreement with Iran, or even take up the controversial pending Senate sanctions bill.
But although Murphy is in a contentious position, he’s not in it alone. And those who have joined him out on Obama’s foreign policy limb are hoping the president will use the bully pulpit Tuesday night to make the case for waiting.
Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine and Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine, both of whom oppose additional Iran sanctions, said they’re hoping the president will be as persuasive publicly as he was privately during a closed-door White House meeting with Democrats on Iran last week.
King said Obama’s message there was “incredibly powerful,” and while he said he was not sure what Obama would say in his address, he did have dire predictions for what will happen if Congress bucks its commander in chief.
“If Congress moves forward on sanctions, there’s a significant likelihood that the Iranians will walk from the negotiations and that our international coalition that has made the sanctions so effective will break apart,” he said. “Both bad results and I see very little upside.”
Kaine is also pushing patience in Congress, and hoping Obama will do the same.
“We need to give diplomacy a chance,” Kaine said. “By the State of the Union, you will be a week after the Jan. 20 start date of the six-month period with Iran and the [International Atomic Energy Agency] will have laid out kind of a baseline report of what the current status is in Iran.”