By D. Shapiro
Following a slow start mobilizing support to block bipartisan efforts in the Senate and House to place additional sanctions on Iran, opponents of new sanctions-backed by the White House-have organized to make their voices heard. By working behind the scenes, this bipartisan group may have been effective in stopping Congress from acting on sanctions legislation.
A letter to President Barack Obama initiated by U.S. Reps. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) and David Price (D-NC)-which opposes additional sanctions as detrimental to the diplomacy being wrought by Secretary of State John Kerry in the quest to prevent the development of a nuclear-armed Iran-was released Tuesday. More than 100 members of the House, including several Republicans, signed the letter.
“We understand that there is no assurance of success and that, if talks break down or Iran reneges on pledges it made in the interim agreement, Congress may be compelled to act as it has in the past by enacting additional sanctions legislation,” the letter states. “At present, however, we believe that Congress must give diplomacy a chance. A bill or resolution that risks fracturing our international coalition or, worse yet, undermining our credibility in future negotiations and jeopardizing hard-won progress toward a verifiable final agreement, must be avoided.”
According to Price’s office, the letter is supported by a number of organizations, and was initiated on Capitol Hill sometime after the Jan. 28 State of the Union Address in which Obama vehemently criticized congressional action pushing for more sanctions. Organizations like J Street, Ploughshares, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Win Without War, and Americans for Peace Now are among those mobilizing their supporters in favor of the letter and against harsher Iran sanctions in general.
Another early supporter of the letter was U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), a Muslim legislator whose office is rumored to have helped circulate the letter to other offices.
“A large number of House Democrats are unified against actions that could undermine diplomacy,” Ellison said in a statement to JNS.org. “Negotiations with Iran are complex and we may not reach a final agreement in exactly six months, but we’re the closest we’ve ever been to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
Signatories to the letter also include Jewish members of Congress with known pro-Israel voting records. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) was one of the leaders in the effort. U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) also signed the letter. Yarmuth had been a vocal opponent of additional Iran sanctions even before the P5+1 agreement with Iran went into effect late last year.
“As an American first, but also as a Jewish American, I strongly support Israel’s security and our nation’s commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons,” Yarmuth said in a short speech on the House floor Jan. 15. “I also fully support advancing peace and stability in the Middle East through diplomacy whenever possible.”
“We are in the midst of a historic opportunity to prevent nuclear proliferation in Iran, but it is fragile,” he continued. “Congressional interference at such a sensitive time is a high-risk, no-reward proposition.”
Though 100 signatories is far from a majority of the 435-member House, and there are no known plans for the House to take up sanctions legislation, the letter’s backers intend to balance the pro-sanctions voices in Congress.
As it stands right now, legislative action on the matter is in the Senate in the form of the Mendendez-Kirk bill, S. 1881. Last month, the Obama administration began lobbying the bipartisan bill’s Democratic sponsor, efforts which appear to have successfully turned the tide in the White House’s favor.
U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) spoke on the Senate floor supporting the legislation, which he, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and ranking leader Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) introduced in December.
Menendez, however, backed away from asking for a vote. Rather, he admonished Senate Republicans for writing a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) asking him to send the legislation to the floor. But Menendez also criticized the Obama administration’s statements against his sanctions bill.
“The concerns I have raised [about Iran] here are legitimate,” Menendez said. “They are not – as the president’s press secretary has said-‘war-mongering.’ This is not saber rattling. It is not Congress wanting to ‘march to war,’ as another White House spokeswoman said-but exactly the opposite.”
This is not the first time Price has co-authored a letter on Iran. When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani came to power, Price, along with U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), authored a letter urging Obama to engage in diplomacy with the new leader. The letter was reportedly signed by 118 members of Congress, including 15 Republicans.
Price sided with the minority last August when the House voted 400 to 20 in support of additional sanctions on Iran. Doggett voted in favor of that bill.
According to multiple House staffers familiar with the debate, the added support for the letter comes from what they view as tangible steps taken between Iran and the U.S. in the P5+1 negotiations that had not yet existed last fall.