Commentary

U.S. Congress Tries to Sabotage Diplomacy toward Iran

Despite the failure of the recent Geneva negotiations between Iran and the major world powers to produce a “first stage” settlement of the dispute surrounding Tehran’s nuclear program, officials remain optimistic that, with patience, progress will take place. Hawks in the U.S. Congress, though, have different ideas. Barely hours after the negotiations in Geneva faltered (mostly because of France’s recalcitrance), key congressional leaders were doing their utmost to scuttle any future chances of a peaceful settlement.

Robert Menendez, (D-New Jersey), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, immediately said that the upper house would “move forward” on a bill to cut Iranian oil exports even further. That bill had passed the House of Representatives weeks earlier by a lopsided 400 to 20 vote, the latest in a series of steps tightening already harsh economic sanctions against Iran.

We are witnessing the worst sort of attempted congressional micro-management of foreign affairs.”

Senator Menendez also stated that any agreement with Iran must include an Iranian commitment to halt all enrichment of uranium. That demand is, and has been for years, a diplomatic nonstarter, since even moderate Iranian politicians refuse to consider such a humiliating concession. The insistence that Iran give up all rights to engage in uranium enrichment is the most extreme, uncompromising position that such ultra hawks as Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) embrace. It is also, not coincidentally, the stance that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has taken.

Although under pressure from the White House, Menendez backed off of his timetable for passing additional sanctions legislation, Senate Republicans (as well as hawkish Democrats, such as Charles Schumer of New York) have not done so in the slightest. Senator Mark Kirk, (R-Illinois), one of Israel’s most enthusiastic supporters, even compared the Obama administration’s negotiating strategy to the infamous appeasement of Adolf Hitler by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in the late 1930s. It was an absurd, shop-worn comparison, but it demonstrated just how stressed hawks have become at even the possibility of a diplomatic rapprochement between the United States and Iran. 

Anti-Iranian members of the House of Representatives are competing with their Senate counterparts to impede prospects for an agreement on the nuclear issue. Secretary of State John Kerry warns bluntly that additional sanctions and other hostile measures would likely torpedo the ongoing talks. Yet Representative Ed Royce (R-California), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, announced that he intends to line-up votes on a new measure that would impose a long list of conditions before the administration could conclude an agreement with Tehran and lift any sanctions.

We are witnessing the worst sort of attempted congressional micro-management of foreign affairs. Indeed, the various proposed congressional measures constitute unhelpful, if not malicious, interference. The Iranian negotiations are at a very sensitive point, and congressional meddling could sabotage a potential breakthrough to de-fuse an especially dangerous crisis in the most volatile region of the world. The executive branch needs to have greater, not lesser, latitude to pursue its diplomacy. The alternative could well be a war that would have an extremely adverse impact not only on the United States and Iran, but all of Iran’s neighbors.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a member of the editorial board at Mediterranean Quarterly, is the author of nine books and more than 500 articles and policy studies.