Last night, Barack Obama threatened to veto any new sanctions on Iran that the newly-Republican majority might pass as a way to pressure Tehran to stop its nuclear program. Obama lectured Congress on his successes in “halt[ing] the progress of its nuclear program and reduc[ing] its stockpile of nuclear material,” and warned that Congressional action would isolate the US from its allies:
There are no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran. But new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails — alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again. It doesn’t make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress.
This morning, John Boehner provided an answer to Obama’s challenge. While the President brags about his diplomatic acumen in a joint session, Boehner will have Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu explain the reality of the Iranian threat in the region to Congress as a rebuttal:
The invitation for Netanyahu to speak to lawmakers on Feb. 11 comes hours after Obama, in his State of the Union address, said he would veto any sanctions legislation.
Boehner was informing the GOP caucus of his invitation in a private meeting. He says Obama expects Congress to stand idly by and do nothing while the administration negotiates with Tehran.
Boehner’s response: “Hell, no.”
This is quite a masterstroke from Boehner, who had to have known Obama would take the high-handed route during the State of the Union speech. In an address filled with denials of reality, arguing that retreating from sanctions without anything solid in return constitutes progress was perhaps among the most absurd. Iran has been extending its regional hegemony in the conflict that Obama’s total withdrawal from Iraq allowed to metastasize, and the Obama administration has signaled its desperation by floating trial balloons about joint operations against ISIS in an attempt to avoid the need for ground troops in Iraq and Syria.
Netanyahu will deliver reality to the joint session. That will be done tactfully by Netanyahu, to be sure, who is taking political heat at home for the deterioration of the US-Israeli relationship. But Netanyahu won’t pull punches either, especially on the need to increase pressure on Iran rather than let them off the hook in the naive hope that being nicer will produce a similar reaction from the Iranians. Tehran sees America on the retreat in the region, and they want to fill that vacuum. That is an existential threat to Israel, and Netanyahu wants to make sure the US understands that, even if Obama does not.
Inside the Beltway, Boehner’s invitation will deliver a reminder that the floor of Congress is not Obama’s fiefdom. He’s not the only person in Washington with a pen and a phone, after all.
Update: Jen Rubin writes that a bipartisan consensus emerged immediately that Obama doesn’t have a clue on Iran — or on the actual sanctions bill being proposed in Congress:
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (Calif.) put out a statement: “The President presented a false choice on Iran sanctions. We can have negotiations and more economic pressure. The Obama Administration has been negotiating with Tehran for over a year. Meanwhile, Tehran has advanced its nuclear capabilities. By the Administration’s own account, significant differences remain with Iran. One thing that could change Tehran’s resistance to accepting a meaningful and effective agreement to keep it from developing a nuclear weapons capability is the threat of more economic pressure. Economic pressure is the only reason the Iranian regime is at the table. Instead of ruling out what has worked, the President should work with Congress to increase the negotiating pressure on Iran.”
Mark Dubowitz of Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a sanctions expert, said without equivocation: “The interim agreement has not ‘frozen’ or ‘halted’ Iran’s military-nuclear program. Following a strategy followed by then-chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani between 2003 and 2005, Tehran has suspended only aspects of the program that no longer need significant advancement, while working on aspects not yet mastered.” He adds, “This includes, among other areas, the development of long-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and, most critically, Iranian stonewalling of the IAEA about possible military dimensions of Iran’s program.”
Josh Block, a long-time Democrat and CEO of the Israel Project, reiterated the two falsehoods Obama propounded. “For over a year the admin has claimed, falsely, that Iran’s nuclear program has been ‘frozen and their progress halted’ during the talks — talks we were told would only last 6 months, yet are now heading toward 19 months (June 30th),” he said via e-mail. “Far from being ‘halted,’ during the negotiations, Iran has enriched at least one more bomb’s worth of material, has advanced its plutonium track to 87% completion, and just, announced it will build 2 more nuclear facilities. Does that sound ‘frozen’ to you?” Block, like other outside Iran experts, also chastised the president for inferring that Congress was about to pass sanctions that would immediately go into effect, thereby thwarting the negotiations[.]
Perhaps Netanyahu will offer more enlightenment on those points. He could hardly do worse than Obama.
Update: The criticism is getting even more bipartisan. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says Obama’s arguments on Iran sound as if they’ve been written by the mullahs:
Sen Menendez jumps in: "The more I hear from the administration… the more it sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran."
— Patricia Zengerle (@ReutersZengerle) January 21, 2015
It’s not the first time Menendez has had issues with Obama on Iran, either. They exchanged sharp words last week at the Democratic retreat:
Menendez, the leading Democrat pushing for additional sanctions against Iran, forcefully pressed Obama on the need for additional sanctions during a meeting in which Obama urged Menendez and other senators to drop their efforts to pass sanctions legislation. Additional sanctions, Obama argued, could torpedo ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
The unusually sharp exchange, between a senior senator and a president from his own party, occurred during a Senate Democratic retreat at a hotel in Baltimore. A senior administration official also confirmed details of the exchange, which was first reported by the New York Times.
Obama said that as a former senator himself, he understood how outside forces — like special interests and donors — can influence senators to act, one of the senators recounted.
That’s when Menendez stood up to challenge the President, telling Obama he took “personal offense” to his assertions, the New York Times reported, arguing that he has worked to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions for many years and was not motivated by political considerations.
That one’s going to sting — badly.