Bloomberg: President Barack Obama offered reassurances to Israeli leaders and some Democratic lawmakers critical of a nuclear deal with Iran as he sought to tamp down maneuvers in Congress that risk undercutting the accord.
By Mike Dorning & Margaret Talev
President Barack Obama offered reassurances to Israeli leaders and some Democratic lawmakers critical of a nuclear deal with Iran as he sought to tamp down maneuvers in Congress that risk undercutting the accord.
The agreement among the U.S. and other world powers with Iran provides a foreign policy achievement for a president whose standing has been damaged by the troubled roll-out of his health-care law. Any political boost still may be limited because the accord is temporary and the negotiating partner isn’t trusted by the American public.
For now, the deal averts the threat of another U.S. military action in the Middle East and represents a breakthrough in relations between the U.S. and Iran 34 years after the Islamic revolution broke ties.
Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday before departing on a trip to the U.S. West Coast and the two talked for about a half-hour. At an Israeli cabinet meeting earlier in the day, the Israeli leader called the six-month accord with Iran “an historic mistake.”
“The president underscored that the United States will remain firm in our commitment to Israel, which has good reason to be skeptical about Iran’s intentions,” Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, told reporters traveling with Obama. The president didn’t address Iran in his public remarks at a fundraiser last night in Seattle.
Some Democratic lawmakers with significant Jewish constituencies joined in the criticism, including Charles Schumer of New York, who said he was “disappointed” by a deal that “does not seem proportional.”
Schumer, the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat, said in a statement yesterday that it’s now “more likely” that Democratic lawmakers will join Republicans in passing legislation to impose more sanctions on Iran, a step that Obama warned in announcing the deal might either disrupt the agreement or distance the U.S. from allies needed to maintain remaining sanctions.
A move by Congress to impose new sanctions “would actually undermine the international coalition that we built,” Earnest said. Obama’s aides have been calling lawmakers to explain the agreement, he said, and the administration is urging members of Congress to “act strategically.”
The potential impact of legislation to boost penalties against Iran is unclear, because several measures that lawmakers have discussed wouldn’t take effect until after expiration of the interim agreement. Congressional sanctions legislation also typically includes provisions permitting the president to waive the law.
John Ullyot, a former Republican staff member for the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Congress probably would avoid interfering with the agreement.
“It took a long time to get to this stage with the support of Russia and China, and in the end there’s enough bipartisan desire to give this agreement a chance to work that any new sanctions bill that does pass will most likely not kick in for six months, and include a waiver provision in the event of Iranian compliance,” said Ullyot, now a managing director for the High Lantern Group, a communications consulting firm.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and past sponsor of legislation imposing sanctions on Iran, predicted that the Senate would take up a sanctions bill when it returns Dec. 9 from a two-week recess.
He said he expected it would provide a six-month window to give the agreement a chance, “but will at the same time be immediately available should the talks falter or Iran fail to implement or breach the interim agreement.”
The accord reached in Geneva broke a decade-long diplomatic stalemate, setting limits on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for about $7 billion in relief from sanctions over six months.
Iran agreed to curtail its nuclear activities and in return won an easing of some curbs on oil, auto parts, gold and precious metals. The deal, which is reversible, releases some of Iran’s oil assets and allows it to keep exporting crude at current levels.
The Persian Gulf nation has the world’s fourth-largest proven oil reserves. Brent crude slumped from a six-week high after the agreement was announced, with January settlement decreasing as much as $2.74 to $108.31 a barrel on the London-based ICE Futures Europe exchange. West Texas Intermediate for January delivery fell as much as $1.20 to $93.64 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
The terms partially fulfill a promise Obama made in his 2008 presidential campaign, during which he provoked criticism from Democratic primary rival Hillary Clinton and Republicans for declaring his willingness to negotiate directly with leaders of pariah nations.
Polls taken before the deal was announced suggest the framework fits the mood of a U.S. public weary of wars in the Middle East after unpopular military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Americans by 64 percent to 30 percent said in an ABC-Washington Post poll taken Nov. 14-17 they would support lifting some economic sanctions on Iran in return for restrictions on the country’s nuclear program that made it “harder” to develop weapons. The public backed such a deal even though 61 percent said they were “not confident” it would prevent Iran for developing nuclear weapons.
The same poll showed Obama’s approval rating at 42 percent, with 55 percent saying they disapproved. That’s compared with the president’s 51 percent approval rating in a May ABC/Post poll. The decline in his approval ratings are matched by a rise in opposition to his health-care law, according to the poll.
Jim Manley, a former press secretary to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, said the agreement isn’t likely to provide much political boost for the president.
“I’m not convinced the American people as a whole are paying much attention” to Iran, Manley said. “While a final agreement would truly be a historic occasion, the fact of the matter is this tentative deal won’t do anything to give the president a boost domestically and certainly won’t stop Republicans in their onslaught against Obamacare.”
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, led a drumbeat of skepticism from members of his party.
Warning of Iran’s “history of obfuscation,” Boehner said the deal “has been and will continue to be met with healthy skepticism and hard questions, not just of the Iranians, but of ourselves and our allies involved in the negotiations.”
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, a California Republican, said he had “serious concerns that this agreement does not meet the standards necessary to protect the United States and our allies” because “Tehran would be able to keep the key elements of its nuclear weapons-making capability.”
Obama’s biggest challenge may come from the closest U.S. ally in the Middle East.
The administration’s diplomatic outreach to Iran has created “a significant rift in the U.S.-Israeli relationship,” Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group, said yesterday.
Miller said that Netanyahu and Obama see the Iran in fundamentally different ways and that their differences could deepen “once the administration gets into selling the agreement because it will have even more of a stake in protecting and selling it.”
Richard Lebaron, a former U.S. ambassador to Kuwait, said Netanyahu’s comments reflect a steady rightward shift in Israeli politics over the last several years, as well as the deep concern about the Iranian threat.
“I find it perplexing that Israel recognizes, in terms of Israeli defense, the Obama administration has been more supportive than any other administration in my lifetime, in terms of rhetoric and practicalities, and yet Israel’s rhetoric has reached such a shrill level,” said Lebaron, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center, a Washington policy group.
Investors showed no concern that the agreement threatened Israel. The country’s TA-25 Index (TA-25) increased as much as 0.7 percent to 1,354.53, the highest intraday level on record, as investors weighed the accord. The yield on the government’s 4.25 percent benchmark bond due 2023 fell six basis points, or 0.06 percentage point, to 3.56 percent.
Arthur Hughes, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East policy, said he sees domestic politics behind Netanyahu’s reaction. He said that Netanyahu’s threats to act unilaterally against Iran have been widely criticized among Israelis in the geopolitical, analytical and strategic arena, Hughes notes.
“Well-known people in Israel publicly say it would be ridiculous to do something because Israel is not capable of the job,” Hughes said.
Miller was among the analysts who said they expect Israel will continue to lobby Congress to implement tougher sanctions.
“There’s zero space in Congress to give Iranians the benefit of the doubt,” Miller said. “Statements by Khamenei about ‘rabid dogs’ isn’t going to help matters,” Miller said, referring to a comment the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei made about Israel.