by Marsha B. Cohen
Mitch McConnell did it, Harry Reid didn’t. Elizabeth Warren did it, Bernie Sanders didn’t. Al Franken did it, Tom Coburn didn’t.
I’m referring to the signing of the latest letter, crafted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and proffered by Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), urging President Barak Obama to turn a cold shoulder to newly elected Iranian president Hassan Rouhani while pursuing a more confrontational and aggressive Iran policy. The Arms Control Association’s Greg Thielmann has already penned an important discussion of why this measure complicates efforts to reach a peaceful solution with Iran, which I highly recommend.
It is worth recalling that another Iranian president-elect, Mohammad Khatami — a reformist whose surprise election shocked the Iranian political establishment — was also greeted by sanctions pushed through Congress. On August 19, 1997, weeks after Khatami took office, President Bill Clinton confirmed that virtually all trade and investment activities by US persons with Iran were prohibited. Those sanctions not only boosted Iranian hardliners who oppose a detente with the US, they also helped ensure that Khatami and his supporters would be unsuccessful in making many of the economic improvements and political changes needed to improve the lives of the Iranian people. His crippled victory was followed by the election of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005. Since then, dozens of letters, resolutions and sanctions bills have emanated from Congress, which of late seems incapable of accomplishing anything else.
According to the “76 senators” who signed the letter:
We believe there are four strategic elements necessary to achieve resolution of this issue: an explicit and continuing message that we will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, a sincere demonstration of openness to negotiations, the maintenance and toughening of sanctions, and a convincing threat of the use of force that Iran will believe. We must be prepared to act, and Iran must see that we are prepared.
So the US must somehow demonstrate an “openness to negotiations” while maintaining and toughening sanctions and convincingly threatening to “use force”, even as it remains mired in Iraq and Afghanistan and utterly bewildered about Syria and Egypt?
Saxby Chamblis did it, Richard Shelby didn’t. Sheldon Whitehouse did it, Ron Wyden didn’t. Chuck Schumer did it, Barbara Boxer didn’t.
Signing and not signing such letters may be of limited practical consequence — though AIPAC and other lobbying groups are certainly keeping tabs — but the political fallout of abstaining can be deafening. When Chuck Hagel was nominated for Secretary of Defense, his detractors screamed about the anti-Iran “letters” he hadn’t signed, according them equal status with his actual votes.
Tammy Baldwin, who was mercilessly hammered by her 2012 opponent Tommy Thompson for wavering on Iran sanctions, didn’t sign onto this letter.
Al Franken (D-MN), who did, won his seat in 2008 after a recount that lasted for months, unseating incumbent Norm Coleman by a mere 312 votes. Coleman, a stalwart of the Republican Jewish Coalition, is salivating at the prospect of Franken making a single false move on the pro-Israel/anti-Iran front that would enable Republicans to pounce. While Franken seems to be in a strong position for reelection in 2014, he can take nothing for granted in the current political environment.
The last listed co-signer, newbie Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), is currently focused on the economy and particularly on who will be running the Fed. But she has been quick to climb aboard the bandwagon that’s torpedoing the prospect of improved relations with Iran, as has Angus King, the Maine Independent who replaced Republican Olympia Snowe.
Of course, the 24 who, for one reason or another, chose not to sign the letter are hardly “profiles in courage”. Some aren’t seeking reelection when their current Senate term is up and can run free of the AIPAC leash, among them Max Baucus, Tom Coburn, Jay Rockefeller and Carl Levin. Perhaps the most curious non-signers are the AIPAC-endorsed, staunchly pro-Israel senators who have consistently voted in favor of increasingly crippling Iran sanctions but also recently abstained from signing a similar letter last December, urging the President to stiffen them. This group includes Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).
Inferring that any senator not signing an AIPAC-crafted letter has opposed crippling sanctions or will oppose the next round of them would be a major mistake. Most of the two dozen non-signers of the latest letter, including Rand Paul (R-KY), who opposes a military attack on Iran, have voted in favor of sanctions in the past and will probably do so in the future unless some political incentive convinces them otherwise. The absent Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) were among the original cosponsors of S. 65 – the AIPAC-promoted “Back Door to Iran War” resolution that expressed support of an Israeli attack on Iran. It garnered 91 cosponsors and passed the Senate 99-0 on May 22. Kirk’s website is meanwhile applauding the House’s passage of the latest Iran sanctions in the House (as is AIPAC; the accompanying photo to this post is the lead image on its website’s front page) and urges the Senate to act as well, which will likely happen in September.
Just about every resolution and vote ratcheting up sanctions against Iran has passed the Senate with a hefty majority. Murkowski, Wyden, and Jon Tester (D-MT) were among the 44 senators who signed an AIPAC letter in June 2012 opposing negotiations with Iran although they didn’t sign this one.
President Obama has defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result”. How ironic it would be if he were to heed this latest letter and, yielding to Congress, sign off on more and stricter sanctions, just as a new Iranian president offers at least an opening for a better era in US-Iran relations.
That said, Rouhani, who stated the other day that “we need to have negotiations without threats” needs to move quickly — while Congress is on its five week summer break — in making some headlines of his own, by, for example, establishing direct contact with the United States.
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