By B. Cohen
Hot on the heels of Iran’s announcement that it is building two new light water nuclear reactors, President Obama has vowed to use his veto powers to block Congressional efforts to introduce new sanctions legislation targeting the Tehran regime.
In doing so, Obama also set the stage for a new battle over Iran in Congress, as he accused Democratic senators opposed to his policy, including New Jersey’s Robert Menendez, of kowtowing to “donors” for the purpose of “short-term political gain.”
The President outlined his intentions at a summit in Baltimore with Senate Democrats, many of whom are skeptical of the White House’s diplomatic outreach to Iran. According to Politico, Obama was in a defiant mood, promising more executive actions to implement his agenda, despite his lame duck status. “I’m not going to spend the next two years on defense; I’m going to play offense,” Obama reportedly told the gathering.
With negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program at a delicate point, the White House is anxious that new sanctions legislation drafted by Senator Menendez (D-NJ) and his colleague Senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) will antagonize Tehran’s negotiators. “We in the administration believe that, at this time, increasing sanctions would dramatically undermine our efforts to reach this shared goal” of reducing Iran’s nuclear weapon capacity, said Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, at a Louisville event with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) earlier this week.
Iran, however, remains determined to limit any outside attempts to limit its nuclear ambitions, simultaneously insisting that its nuclear program is a civilian one. On a visit to Bushehr province, where the regime is building the new facilities and where it already operates a nuclear power plant, President Hasan Rouhani asserted that “Iran is only looking for a civilian use of the nuclear energy and for power generation.”
The new nuclear plants are being constructed with assistance from Russia, which signed an agreement in March with Iran to aid in the construction. Neither the Iranians nor the Russians need fear American objections, though; as an unnamed State Department official told the Washington Free Beacon, “in general, the construction of light water nuclear reactors is not prohibited by UN Security Council resolutions, nor does it violate the JPOA.” (“JPOA” stands for the “Joint Plan of Action” negotiated between Iran and the P5+1 -the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with Germany – in Geneva in November 2013.)
The Washington, DC-based advocacy organization The Israel Project pointed out in a briefing issued this week that the “JPOA was supposed to freeze the Iranian program to prevent them from improving their position as talks proceeded. It failed. Instead the Iranians spent the last year building up their nuclear program – and their leverage – across all areas.” These areas include uranium enrichment, continued work on the Arak plutonium factory, and “unlimited” work on ballistic missiles, The Israel Project observed.
The widening distance between the White House and Congress over Iran was dramatically underlined by reports of the clash between Senator Menendez and President Obama. According to the New York Times, at the Baltimore gathering, Obama “said he understood the pressures that senators face from donors and others, but he urged the lawmakers to take the long view rather than make a move for short-term political gain.”
“Mr. Menendez, who was seated at a table in front of the podium, stood up and said he took ‘personal offense,'” the Times reported. Menendez said that he had worked for more than 20 years to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and had always been focused on the long-term implications. He also warned the president that sanctions could not be imposed quickly if Congress waited to act and the talks failed, “according to two people who were present,” the Times said.
Writing on the blog of the Council on Foreign Relations, Elliott Abrams, a senior official in the George W. Bush Administration, described as “remarkable” the exchange between Obama and Menendez. “No wonder Sen. Menendez took ‘personal offense,'” Abrams wrote. “What does a senior Democrat get from the leader of his party when he spends years working on the Iran file? The accusation that it’s all about politics and campaign cash. Mr. Obama remains unable to respect differing views; at bottom he considers them not only wrong, but corrupt.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) also weighed in on the dispute.
“What exactly was President Obama suggesting when he said opposition to his Iran policy is due to ‘donors’?” asked RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks. “No one would say opposition to his Russia policy is due to ‘donors,’ or his Cuba policy is due to ‘donors,’ or his general foreign policy is due to ‘donors.’ So why did President Obama single out those who seek tougher sanctions on Iran and say their viewpoints are based on ‘donors?’ The threat Iran poses to Israel and the western world is a national security issue. Attributing opposition to his Iran policy to the views of ‘donors’ is an inappropriate statement and it underplays the serious threat that Iran represents.”