The next round of "P5+1" talks with Iran are due to restart on May 23. It is widely accepted in Israel, in Congress and among informed foreign policy gurus that the administration will strive mightily to make a deal, any deal, to claim progress and stave off unilateral military action by Israel. Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who has been instrumental in crafting sanctions legislation explains in an e-mail, "[Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei likely will continue the strategy of playing for time by dangling some incremental nuclear concessions before the negotiators, such as the cessation of 20- percent uranium enrichment, while maintaining Iran's right to continue enrichment at lower levels [which is not a right guaranteed by the Non-Proliferation Treaty]." He continued, " This 'concession' will be portrayed as an important confidence-building measure, putting pressure on the Obama administration and its P5+1 partners for a similar gesture of goodwill in return, to help keep the negotiations moving forward."
He warns, reiterating a view he expressed before the House Committe on Foreign Affairs, that this would be disastrous: "As eager, however, as President Obama is for a deal that will get Iran off the front pages — and all but eliminate the possibility of an Israeli strike ahead of the November election — he cannot take the political risk of offering too much relief for too few concessions. Once sanctions start to unravel, the fear of U.S. penalties that held them together will become difficult to reestablish, and the multilateral sanctions regime — the centerpiece of the president's Iran strategy — will be gone. This may also persuade the Israelis that the time for diplomacy has passed, and only military action can stop Iran's development of nuclear weapons."
Precisely because Congress feels Iran is engaged in a rope-a-dope game and/or Obama will make a foolhardy deal that fails to halt the Iranian nuclear weapons program, efforts are underway to craft maximalist sanctions in advance of May 23. The House passed such a bill by a lopsided vote of 410-11.
The Senate is a different matter. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who says he is in favor of sanctions could have put the House bill on the floor and given it an up or down vote. Instead he opted for a watered down version of the bill. He entertained language from isolationist Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that would specifically state the bill was not an authorization for use of force. He then proceeded to shut Republicans out of the process.
A senior GOP congressional aide with close knowledge of Iran sanctions legislation told me, "Neither Leader Reid nor Chairman [Sen. Tim] Johnson's staff ever agreed to a single meeting with Sen. [Mark] Kirk's office to address the senator's proposed amendment. E-mails and phone calls went unreturned for weeks. The first time Democrats ever discussed the Iran bill with Republicans was last night when Reid's office dropped off the manager's amendment he negotiated with himself." The Democrats characterized the Republicans as refusing to move forward; Republicans explain they are not about to pass toothless sanctions bill that would be buried in the conference committee.
Josh Rogin reports: "Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) objected to passing the bill by unanimous consent Thursday afternoon following a short floor debate during which he, along with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) argued that the bill should include a mention that all options are on the table for confronting Iran's nuclear program, including the use of military force. In floor remarks, Kyl said that negotiations would continue and perhaps the bill would be brought up for consideration again early next week." Sources tell me a vote will occur on Monday.
Let's consider: If Reid was not working at the behest of the White House trying to slow down sanctions legislation that might preclude a phony "diplomatic breakthrough,"and if he didn't want a bill or a bill mired in conference, would he have watered down the bill and excluded Republicans?
No. His are the actions of lawmaker seeking to delay and disrupt sanctions, thereby giving both the Iranians and the president breathing room. Unless he passes the House version on Monday, he will have played his role as Obama's errand boy to the hilt.
Dubowitz argues, "The temptation may be for Obama or the EU to offer sanctions relief in the shadows away from congressional and public scrutiny. To prevent this, Congress needs to require the administration to report on exactly what sanctions relief is being offered and in exchange for what concessions. The only Iranian concessions of any value are the complete suspension of all enrichment, the full disclosure of all nuclear weapon activities, no remaining stockpiles of any form of enriched uranium and full operation with intrusive inspections under the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Khamenei will likely never agree to these terms which is why a meaningful, verifiable and acceptable deal with this regime probably is impossible."
Here is the thing: If Obama next week comes back with a "deal" that does not require the cessation of enrichment, full verification, the shut down of Qom and the preservation of sanctions until progress can be confirmed, what will the Democrats do — circle the wagons around Obama or condemn the farce? I have my suspicions, but I hope I am wrong.