WASHINGTON, January 28, 2015 — President Obama’s State of the Union address last week sparked a new level of executive-legislative acrimony.
The latest battle centers on Iran’s nuclear program and the U.S.-led talks with Tehran aimed at curbing that program.
During the speech, Obama stated that Iran had halted its nuclear program and its enriched-uranium stockpile had been reduced. He also threatened to veto any move by Congress to implement new sanctions on Iran, saying they would derail talks currently taking place between Iran and the so-called P5+1, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and the EU.
The statement left intelligence officers scratching their heads, as Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium has continued to increase over the last five years, even after it reached an interim agreement with world leaders in November 2013. Tehran could convert the reactor-grade stockpiles to weapons-grade in less than four months. It has also tested advanced centrifuges and refuses and is pushing for a short timeframe for any restrictions to remain I place.
Additionally, Iran has refused to cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Administration (IAEA)
Many observers believe Iran has no intention of halting its nuclear program and instead is looking at a short-term hiatus to take advantage of reduced sanctions and an end to international isolation.
But that isn’t what the fight is about. At least not really.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the rest of the Republican Congress want to hold Iran accountable for failing to act on its promises to significantly curb its program. Obama’s speech apparently hit a nerve with Boehner, who decided to act. Regarding Obama’s statement on a possible veto, Boehner said, “No White House threat will stop us from doing the right thing to protect the US and its allies.”
As part of that strategy, Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress about the Iranian talks.
Netanyahu – an outspoken critic of Iran and its program – accepted the invitation after meeting with the Republican caucus but not members of the Administration.
And that is what caused both sides to unsheathe their swords.
The White House press secretary politely responded to the Netanyahu invitation by saying Boehner had diverged from protocol by inviting a head of state to visit without consulting the White House.
However, privately, the Administration is smoldering. Several media sources have reported that an unnamed White House “source” said, “He spat in our face publicly … Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price.”
Israel’s liberal Haaretz newspaper has also reported that Obama previously warned Netanyahu to halt his efforts to lobby Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran.
Republican leaders are no more in the mood for compromise than the Administration, and appear willing to use their mid-term win to stymie Obama’s plans. They have declared his domestic initiatives “dead” and their invitation to Netanyahu shows they are no longer interested in reaching across the very wide aisle.
Obama, currently enjoying his highest approval ratings since April 2013 and is likewise not budging on his agenda. The White House announced it will not meet with Netanyahu during his visit.
This tension between Obama and Netanyahu is not new. Netanyahu is much closer to U.S. Republicans than to Democrats, and he openly backed Mitt Romney in the last election.
Likewise, the Administration supported Tzipi Livni against Netanyahu for the Prime Minister job.
Netanyahu desperately wants to stop Iran’s nuclear program. To accomplish that goal, the Prime Minister appears willing to consider almost anything. There are abundant rumors that Israel is behind the mysterious deaths of several Iranian nuclear scientists, and Israeli newspapers reported last year that the United States urged Israel to “stop assassinating nuclear scientists.” There are also frequent rumors that Israel would consider a preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear sites if that is their only option.
Netanyahu also knows that the best way to stop Iran’s program is to win the backing of international leaders, including the United States, to decisively eliminate the program. An international military operation combined with sanctions would seriously cripple Iran’s program.
While everyone is maneuvering, the repercussions are starting to ripple.
In Israel, Netanyahu is facing a backlash over the visit. Two of the members of Netanyahu’s own cabinet have openly opposed the visit and urged him to cancel. They have claimed that Netanyahu is using the trip to grand-stand, at the expense of the long-term interests of Israel, which include positive relations with the U.S.
Of course, they are also playing their own political game as they position themselves for Israel’s elections.
Head of Israel’s intelligence organization, Mossad, has also publicly denounced Netanyahu’s Iran policy. The intelligence organization has warned that ending nuclear talks with Iran would further destabilize the Middle East and spur Iran to finalize a nuclear weapon.
For Israel and the U.S., the latest maneuvering appears to have severely undercut any chance that Obama and Netanyahu will heal their rift. It also appears unlikely for now that congressional Democrats will align with Israel in the near term.
Meanwhile, the Administration is lobbying like mad. Obama is likely to continue to encourage British Prime Minister David Cameron to visit the U.S. to present his case to Congress – and likely the White House – in support of Iranian negotiations. The EU has already weighed in with a letter to all members of Congress urging them to back talks or miss “a historic opportunity that may not come again.” Secretary of State John Kerry has also warned that ending talks would alienate America’s European allies who support discussions.
If the Republicans do pass new sanctions, they will receive a significant political victory over Obama. Congressional leaders are trying to create a majority that would over-ride an Obama veto, which would further strengthen their position at the expense of the President.
However, the move by the Republicans appears to have solidified the congressional Democrats, at least for now, and could make a veto-proof majority difficult. Democratic members of the Senate who had been championing sanctions against Iran announced that they would delay a vote on the bill until March. The move effectively gives Obama a temporary win in the Iran sanctions category.
Even if the Republicans cannot overcome a veto, passing legislation will send a strong signal to Obama that the midterm victory carries teeth and, like Obama, the Republicans are not afraid to use whatever means necessary to succeed.
If Boehner and the Republicans fail to even pass sanctions legislation after taking such a public stand, it will be a major blow to the party and shake the party’s confidence.
The executive branch drives U.S. policy on Iran, and with two more years in office, President Obama is showing no signs of bowing to pressure from Congress, or Netanyahu.
At the same time, Republicans are ready for combat, armed with a majority in both houses that they aren’t afraid to use.
Regardless of who fires the next warning shot, the Republican – Democrat divide is not likely to heal anytime soon.
The real fight is about Republicans and Democrats and President Obama. It is an old fashion slug-fest, likely to become more brazen and bloody as Washington careens toward the 2016 elections.
Netanyahu, Israel, and Iran are just the start of a very long two-year war.