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The Congress vs. Barack Obama: The U.S. vs. Iran

Barack Obama is fighting hard to be permitted by Congress to throw cotton candy at Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran. It is unlikely that he will succeed, and that is because even many Democratic senators are simply mortified by the president’s trifling efforts at getting the mullahs to back down from their nuclear aspirations. He has spent nearly 16 months in what he should have known would be a doomed diplomacy to induce Russia and China to get tough with Tehran. Yes, get tough.

The fact is that Obama’s confident vanity in diplomacy no longer commands much respect around the country. You don’t hear even professional party loyalists stick up for his pathetic entreaties to both our antagonists and enemies. Democrats will be hard-pressed to defend a policy that refused to defend against an Iranian bomb. Would you be eager to do that?

John Vinocur, a senior New York Times correspondent and the journalistic light at the International Herald Tribune, reports on the effort by Senator John Kyl of Arizona to take on the president’s wooly approach to Iran in Congress. This is one Obama will not win.

May 17, 2010
A Hard Push to Get Tough on Tehran

WASHINGTON — These days, when Senator Jon Kyl denounces efforts to muffle a strong response to Iran’s rush toward nuclear weapons, his prime target is not the Chinese or Russians, but Barack Obama.
There is no deferential cushion attached to his message: “The president,” the senator has said, “must drop his obstruction of and halt his efforts to water down the tough new sanctions on Iran that Congress is considering.”
The accusation is biting and far-reaching.
The tough new sanctions the senator says the White House is trying to soften are contained in a bill that a House-Senate conference committee wants completed by the end of May. If you consider that an eventual fourth round of United Nations Security Council sanctions is unlikely to scare the mullahs, then Congress’s version — hard-edged or a softball — will serve as an essential marker to the world of American intentions on Iran.
Mr. Kyl comes to the Iran issue from a career anchored in another area of security affairs.
He is one of the most articulate voices in Congress on nuclear security and nonproliferation issues, heading the Senate’s National Security Working Group. It is this badge of influence and his reputation for a lack of interest in polemics that give weight to the Arizona Republican’s assertion that Mr. Obama has given away more than a year “with nothing to show for it” — not excepting a still-to-be-ratified Start nuclear arms treaty of questionable significance that he says magnifies an indecisive or even wobbling approach on Iran.
In a conversation last week, Mr. Kyl said: “The administration’s focus on Start is misplaced. The president says nuclear proliferation and terrorism are America and the world’s greatest concerns. So why would he focus so much attention elsewhere rather than deal with the Iranian problem?”
He gave his own answer: “They, the administration, would say that by leading the way with arms control, it will be easier to persuade the rest of the world to go along with us. That may be persuasive in a university setting but it doesn’t work in reality.
“It’s not as if the real world would say, ‘We agree with you and we’ll impose crippling sanctions on Iran.”
Mr. Kyl, sounding bipartisan, argued that an American problem about imposing sufficiently tough sanctions to affect Iran began with the inadequate response of George W. Bush.
But referring to Mr. Obama, he said, “If you want to avoid military action, then you throw all your energy into sanctions.”
Which brings the issue around to whether the United States, very much on its own, can impose sanctions rigorous enough — the Democratic-led House and Senate have overwhelmingly voted yes in separate bills — to serve as an example for action by like-minded countries later in the year.
After all, the Obama administration has always rationalized that a new round of Security Council sanctions, however modest (very, very modest), would provide a steppingstone resolution (or more precisely, legal cover) for a big, harsh squeeze on Iran from a worldwide coalition of the willing.
Enter Mr. Kyl’s charge about Mr. Obama’s obstruction and evisceration of America’s own version.
With a final draft of the bill before a joint conference committee, Congress is aiming to strike at Iran’s dependency on imported refined petroleum products to fuel its cars and trucks. No magic wand, the legislation would nonetheless have a very palpable effect on a country importing 60 percent of its gasoline needs. In the process, companies selling gas or other vital goods to Iran could essentially be barred from business access to the United States.
But the White House is reported to be urging the insertion of language that would allow for exemptions to so-called “cooperating countries.” Against White House denials, a Republican congresswoman and member of the conference committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, has claimed that the exemption provision is a specific sop for China and Russia in exchange for their votes in favor of an “almost do-nothing U.N. resolution.”
The White House was also said to be asking for removal of language from the House version that could restrict American deals like ones involving Russia and civilian nuclear energy.
That’s not a sure-fire way to ensure European or Asian cooperation in a broad front of similar sanctions.
Increasingly in economic crisis mode, European Union countries will also be increasingly loath to limit their companies’ energy supply and technology contracts with Iran.
And if the United States were to muzzle its own sanctions with asterisks and opt-outs — described, to boot, as coming with the imprimatur of the president — then its willpower, credibility, and leadership can become suspect not only for its allies but for Tehran.
In this context, the issue of the president’s actual intentions on Iran come into question.
The language surrounding this concern has hardened, with the Democratic senator from New York, Charles Schumer, saying, “The United States must hit Iran first, on our own with unilateral sanctions, no matter what the other nations of the world do.”
And the number of voices expressing it has broadened. In a bipartisan letter last month urging the president to confront the Iranian nuclear threat, 79 of the Senate’s 100 members felt it necessary to urge Mr. Obama specifically “to reaffirm that the U.S. can and will prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.”
Maybe a written response has been held up in the mail. For Mr. Kyl, Congress’s tough sanctions bill seems for Mr. Obama “to set up a confrontation he doesn’t want.”
Pointedly but perhaps excessively stated, is this a developing clash on Iran between American unilateralists and defeatists? Slippery answer: The circumstances make for a taut moment, worthy of wide attention.