- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Democrats and Republicans alike brushed off President Obama’s threat to veto stiffer Iran sanctions, insisting Wednesday that the White House is being bamboozled by the ayatollahs, and it’s up to Congress to stiffen the administration’s spine as it negotiates over Tehran’s nuclear program.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said he’s invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — a firm critic of the administration’s negotiations with Iran — to speak to a joint session of Congress next month to lay out the dangers an assertive Iran and the growing militant Islamic threat pose to stability in the region.

Senators, meanwhile, said they’re pushing ahead with legislation despite Mr. Obama’s veto threat, and warned that if the administration doesn’t cooperate, the president could find himself facing the first veto override of his tenure.

“I want you to ask me for permission, and I want you to present the agreement to us, and I want you to present an agreement we all like,” said Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican. “You’re not going to get everybody, but I think the vast majority will vote for a reasonable thing.”

Mr. Obama’s negotiators are part of an effort, along with Russia, China and European allies, to try to get Iran to halt and roll back its nuclear program, which Iranian leaders say is peaceful but which international arms control experts say appears aimed at producing nuclear weapons. The negotiators have set a March deadline for producing the outlines of an agreement and a June deadline for a final compromise.

The president has asked for flexibility in the negotiations, saying that while previous sanctions imposed by Congress have helped bring Iran to the table, any further moves could spook Iranian leaders or upset the other partners who are part of the negotiations.

His pleas have not swayed lawmakers on Capitol Hill, where Democrats and Republicans say he’s hurt his own case by cutting secret deals with other world leaders in the past and seems to be too weak in dealing with Tehran.

Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, told top State Department officials Wednesday that the administration’s defense sounded like Iranian talking points, and said it appeared the U.S. was doing all of the giving in the negotiations.

The U.S. went into negotiations with the goal of shutting down the nuclear program, but it now appears the best the Obama team can win is a permanent freeze, where it would take Iran about a year to rekindle its full weapons program and build a nuclear bomb.

Senators said that was unacceptable and would destabilize the region.

Israel in particular could feel pressure to act, and Mr. Boehner said hearing Mr. Netanyahu’s thoughts on Iran is one reason he asked the prime minister to speak to Congress.

The White House called the invitation a breach of protocol, saying it is usually told ahead of time when a world leader will be coming to Washington. But spokesman Josh Earnest said Mr. Obama wasn’t annoyed by the breach, and Mr. Boehner said he didn’t “believe I’m poking anyone in the eye” with the invitation.

“There is a serious threat that exists in the world. The president last night kind of papered over it,” Mr. Boehner said. “There needs to be a more serious conversation in America about how serious the threat is from radical Islamic jihadists and the threat posed by Iran.”

The House in the last Congress passed stiffer sanctions, and both Mr. Boehner and House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican, said they’re already working on a new bill.

Senators, meanwhile, are pondering a number of options. One of those is to impose stiffer sanctions but to attach a trigger so that they only go into effect should the sides in the nuclear negotiations not be able to agree on a deal by June.

Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, meanwhile, has floated the idea of forcing Mr. Obama to come back to Congress for approval if the president decided he wants to suspend the current sanctions that are already biting.

Mr. Paul and Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, are working on a separate proposal that wouldn’t impose any new sanctions now but would set rules for Congress to move quickly should the negotiations eventually falter. That bill would not give the U.S. a stiffer negotiating position right now, but it would quell the fears of some that getting new sanctions in place could take months — time that Iran could use to finish its nuclear program and therefore be tougher to negotiate with.

Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Senate that current sanctions are already working, and if Congress moves ahead with new penalties it will fracture the international coalition and could give Iran an excuse to withdraw from talks and rekindle its full nuclear program.

Iran is well aware that a sword of Damocles hangs over its head,” Mr. Blinken said. “New sanctions at this point are not necessary, but we also believe their passage now would put at risk getting to a final deal over the next several months.”

He said input from Capitol Hill is welcome, but said Mr. Obama must retain final say, and even allowing Congress to vote on suspending the earlier sanctions it imposed could upset the international coalition.

Senators disputed that, saying they’d talked with key foreign leaders and didn’t get any pushback. Mr. Menendez said it was striking that Iran’s negotiators have said they’ll have to run the final deal by their parliament but Mr. Obama was refusing to do the same with Congress.

“Why is it possible that Tehran will treat its parliament better than the administration in the greatest democracy is willing to treat its Congress? It just boggles my imagination,” the New Jersey Democrat said.

The administration is suffering for past botches as well.

Members on both sides of the aisle said Mr. Blinken last year promised to consult with them before the administration struck any deals with Cuba. But just weeks later, the president announced a sweeping diplomatic deal without checking in with key lawmakers.

“I regret that I did not live up to the standard I set,” a chastened Mr. Blinken said.

Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who grilled Mr. Blinken over his conduct, said it mattered because Mr. Blinken was once again promising to keep senators in the loop over negotiations with Iran.

“We’re being asked to trust that we’re going to be fully consulted while the use of the word consultation, as it’s been defined by the administration … is problematic,” Mr. Rubio said.

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