A recent AP/GfK poll shows that a majority of Americans, 55 percent, disapprove of how Barack Obama is handling the Iran issue. There’s good reason for skepticism about Iranian intentions—after all, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif threatens that if the interim deal agreed to on November 24 in Geneva falls apart then Iran can resume enriching uranium at 20 percent within 24 hours.
The concerns of the American public have been heard and registered on Capitol Hill. This afternoon, Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez were joined by twenty-four of their senate colleagues, Democrats and Republicans, in introducing The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013. The bipartisan bill is evidence of a pervasive wariness regarding the administration’s interim agreement with Iran—indeed, the skepticism runs so deep that it has driven together New York Democrat Charles Schumer and Texas Republican Ted Cruz as co-sponsors on the same piece of legislation. "The American people rightfully distrust Iran's true intentions and they deserve an insurance policy to defend against Iranian deception during negotiations,” Kirk said in a prepared statement.
The bill would impose additional sanctions if Iran violates the Joint Plan of Action laid out at Geneva, or in the event that no final agreement is reached after the six-month negotiating window stipulated by the JPA. The issue isn’t just Iran, but the administration’s negotiating tactics. Yes, the Iranians have kept enriching uranium, pledged to continue construction of a plutonium facility at Arak, and announced a ballistic missile test in the three weeks since the deal was struck in Geneva—but the equally important issue is that the White House doesn’t seem sufficiently bothered about it.
"The dynamics are what I've always said they would be,” Menendez told the National Journal. The point, he said, is “to give the president the space and time so that he can test the Iranians' seriousness of purpose in terms of whether they are willing to strike an agreement, but to be ready should they ultimately fail.”
Menendez’s characterization is, to say the least, diplomatic. Perhaps the most significant part of the legislation is not the threat of more sanctions after the six-month period, but that it lays down the minimum standards for any final agreement. This includes compelling Iran to comply with all the U.N. Security Council resolutions regarding its nuclear program, and dismantling the illicit nuclear infrastructure, and weapons components and technology, thereby eliminating the Iranians’ breakout capability. In other words, the bill outlines many of the terms that the administration has abandoned in the interim agreement out of fear that the Iranians won’t accept them. Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif says “the structure of our nuclear program has been maintained,” but the bill establishes that this is unacceptable. The essential message then is that Congress believes not concluding a deal with Iran is better than a deal that would allow the Iranians to continue to pursue a nuclear weapons program.
Not surprisingly, top administration officials, like Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of state for political affairs and one of the key members of the team negotiating with Iran, have been lobbying intensely against the bill. Undoubtedly her argument is that, as White House spokesman Jay Carney put it, limiting the negotiating team’s diplomatic flexibility sets us on a “march to war.” The purpose of the administration’s information campaign is to slap the label warmonger on any critic of the deal, and many of the White House’s friends in the press have signed on. The New York Times’ Bill Keller believes that moves “to impose new sanctions before the interim deal even takes effect are… effectively sabotage.” Likening Republican critics of the agreement to Iranian rejectionists, like the leader of the paramilitary Basij forces, Keller argues that “Our hard-liners pose a greater problem than Iran’s.”
However, the problem for Obama and his press surrogates is the bipartisan nature of the new legislation. White House loyalists like Charles Schumer, and several Democrats facing tough re-election battles in November, like Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and Arkansas’ Mark Pryor are backing the bill. If Schumer and the other Democrats are now part of the so-called “hardliner” camp, then they’ve joined the 84 percent of Americans (96 percent of Republicans and 75 percent of Democrats), who, according to a Tower/Masdar poll conducted last week, believe that Iran is using negotiations to stall as it continues to advance its nuclear weapons development. So, either the vast majority of Americans are hardliners, or Obama is out of step with the country—including a number of key Democratic allies in the Senate.