Playing Chicken With Sanctions

It’s beginning to look like a game of chicken.  The Senate is threatening to pass tough new sanctions and the Iranians are threatening to walk out of the nuclear negotiations if that happens.  Senators are saying the Iranians are bluffing and they’ll just be strengthening President Obama’s hand in the talks.  Meanwhile, the administration is trying to calm the Israelis, who are probably egging on the Senators, by consulting closely on negotiating strategy.  The President is trying to prevent the new sanctions while avoiding looking like a wimp to the Senate, the Israelis and the Iranians.

Who will blink first?

The administration is pressing ahead with efforts to convince the Netanyahu government that it is very sensitive to Israel’s concerns regarding the nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Secretary of State John Kerry was in Jerusalem this week to brief Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the latest developments (as well as prod both Israel and the Palestinians in their peace talks), while the top national security advisors of both countries met in Washington to discuss the next stage in the talks with Iran.

Israeli National Security Advisor Yossi Cohen and his team held a working meeting at the White House last week with National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, along with senior officials from the Departments of State and Treasury, the White House announced Sunday evening.

They discussed “efforts to pursue a lasting and comprehensive settlement that would resolve the international community’s concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program.”  Rice reassured the Israelis of “President Obama’s goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” 

The administration is concerned that Netanyahu and his supporters are pressing the Congress to enact new sanctions despite the President’s call for a moratorium on new legislation.

The House has passed a tough new sanctions bill by a near-unanimous vote, and a number of senators on both sides of the aisle want to do the same thing. 

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif this weekend repeated threats to walk out of the talks if the Congress imposes new sanctions.  The administration wants new legislation put on hold in order to give the talks a chance to succeed.  Part of the interim agreement was no new sanctions for at least the six months they’ve given themselves to work out a permanent agreement to guarantee the Iranians do not build nuclear weapons.  President Obama has said that if the talks fail he will the first to call for tougher new sanctions, but now it’s time to give the negotiations a chance.  

A number of senators have said they think Iran is bluffing and new sanctions are needed to ratchet up the pressure; they also want to block the President from waiving any sanctions during the negotiations.  Democratic leaders are expected to try to prevent the legislation from coming to the floor in the coming week before lawmakers recess until mid-January.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.