Hours after announcing a nuclear deal with Iran, President Barack Obama moved to prevent the agreement from opening a rift with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and even with some Democrats in Congress.
The agreement among the U.S. and other world powers with Iran provides a foreign policy achievement for a president whose standing and reputation for competence have 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 U.S. 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 planned to call Netanyahu today, according to the White House. At an Israeli cabinet meeting this morning, the Israeli leader called the six-month interim accord “an historic mistake.”
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.”
The Senate’s third-ranking Democrat said that it’s now “more likely” that Democratic lawmakers will join Republicans in passing legislation to impose additional 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.
Even so, the impact of any congressional move further tighten penalties against Iran is unclear because several pieces of sanctions legislation that lawmakers cited today wouldn’t take effect until after expiration of the interim agreement. Congressional sanctions legislation also typically include provisions permitting the president to waive the law. Obama would have the opportunity to veto any legislation.
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.
“I expect that the forthcoming sanctions legislation to be considered by the Senate will provide for a six-month window to reach a final agreement before imposing new sanctions on Iran, but will at the same time be immediately available should the talks falter or Iran fail to implement or breach the interim agreement,” Menendez said in a statement.
The accord reached early today 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 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 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.
Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said in a statement today that “it is a choice between a pause or imminent war,” adding “I choose a verifiable pause.”
Still, Jim Manley, a former press secretary to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, said the agreement is not 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 criticism 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.”
Virginia’s Eric Cantor, the second-ranking House Republican, said the U.S. “must remain vigilant and respond immediately and severely to any cheating or wrongdoing by Iran. And we must rebuild our alliances in the region and stand firmly with our closest partners against Iranian aggression.”
Obama may face even stiffer resistance 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,” said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group.
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 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.
“But 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.
Israel’s benchmark stock index, the TA-25 Index, increased as much as 0.7 percent to 1,354.53, the highest intraday level on record, as investors weighed the accord. Israel’s benchmark government bond due March 2023 rose 0.31 shekel to 107.96 at 9:45 a.m. in Tel Aviv, pushing the yield on the 4.25 percent note down 3 basis points to 3.59 percent.
Arthur Hughes, a former 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.
Lebaron said any unilateral action would also “isolate Israel, because you have major powers endorsing the agreement.”
Both expected to see Israel 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.
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