White House

How Obama Won the War on Iran Sanctions

The president is getting a chance to make negotiations with Iran work. By Stacy Kaper

The push for new sanctions on Iran has stalled. The Democrats who bucked President Obama to back the sanctions bill are backpedaling mightily—no longer even pretending they're pushing Harry Reid to hold a vote on the measure. And while there's still plenty of chest-pounding and posturing, the debate's end result seems clear: The Senate will wait, at least so long as the negotiations move in the right direction.

That's a full flip from just more than a month ago. Before the December recess, the Senate's pro-sanctions faction was surging. Senators—including Democrats who are typically Obama loyalists—were agreeing with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's claim that the nuclear negotiations with Iran bordered on capitulation.

So how did Obama—a supposedly feckless president when it comes to handling Congress—turn the tide?

Obama's in-person, all-hands-on-deck advocacy campaign with the Senate appears to have advanced his cause, but it's not that simple.

The president combined tangible developments abroad with fervent support from the Left, and used it to win out over a fracturing Israel lobby. In the process, he won—at least for now—a foreign policy victory just as his critics were insisting Obama's age of influence was over.

"It's a combination of one side not doing that much and the other side doing a lot. The AIPAC guys have not been calling us and usually we would be hearing from them," a Democratic Senate aide said. AIPAC is shorthand for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Washington's best-known pro-Israel lobby group.

Obama started by reaching out to Congress in their house and his: He sent envoys, including Secretary of State John Kerry, to Capitol Hill, and he invited key players to a White House meeting to make a case that independent Sen. Angus King of Maine labeled "incredibly powerful."

(Read more Defense One coverage on Iran here)

But outreach on Iran is nothing new. What is different this time is that, unlike with past rounds of sanctions against Iran where the interplay has been more theoretical, the Islamic republic is actually at the negotiating table, at least going through the motions of entertaining the dismantling of its nuclear-weapons capabilities. Tremendous skepticism remains that the talks will ultimately work—including from inside the administration—but the ongoing talks at least give concerned senators an alternative.

And then there was the resurgent progressive movement that capitalized on a war-weary public to push Democrats in Obama's direction.MoveOn.orgDaily KosThe Huffington Post, and other liberal media outlets have mobilized against Democrats who supported sanctions, accusing them of undermining Obama with warmongering and asking, "Where's the antiwar Left?"

Finally, Obama was the beneficiary of weakened opposition. The Israel lobby has succeeded in influencing Iran policy for decades, but it's currently in a state of upheaval. AIPAC has not been beating down doors canvassing Capitol Hill in a concerted campaign as it has in the past, and J Street—AIPAC's younger, rising counterweight—is making the case against sanctions.

"The bottom line is that more and more members want to give the administration the space they are asking for to try to negotiate a deal with Iran. If it doesn't work they'll begin to ratchet up the sanctions more," a former senior Democratic Senate aide said. "I believe the administration now has the space they are looking for."

Another Senate aide agreed that outside forces are making a difference.

"The president's base has gone all-in with his party, cashed in every chit possible, applied every possible pressure point on Democrats, used messaging and rhetoric that fires up the liberal base, and activated grass roots to target Democrats and make them afraid of this bill from the left," said the aide. "Unfortunately it's turned it partisan, and we'll see if Republicans will take the next step."

The impact of Democrats growing gun-shy could have implications for the GOP agenda. The House passed additional sanctions against Iran in July, before the current negotiations were announced. House GOP leaders have since flirted with bringing up the pending Senate sanctions bill, but have been concerned about losing Democrats and thus losing any impact by turning an intended bipartisan message partisan. At the same time, House Republican leaders have struggled to convince senior Democrats to push forward a less controversial, bipartisan nonbinding resolution on Iran.

Matthew Duss, a policy analyst with the liberal Center for American Progress, argued that the outreach from liberal groups has made an impact by tapping into war fatigue.

"Without question, there has been great work done by progressive organizations, communicating with policymakers and legislators some of the problems with the sanctions bill and urging the activists and grassroots community and constituents to call their own elected members," he said. "You've seen the resurrection of elements of the Iraq War Coalition on the left who remember that we got ourselves into a huge mess in the Middle East are sending this message: 'Let's not do that again.' That's a very strong motivating factor."

Democratic operatives tracking the issue said that as Democrats have had time to digest the legislation, the details have given them cold feet. The bill, for example, does more than simply impose additional sanctions if Iran breaks its agreement. It also calls for authorizing military force to support Israel in any military conflict against Iran.

"The recognition that the language was so broadly written that passage of the legislation could in fact lead to the possibility of a confrontation with Iran is what tipped the scales," the former senior Democratic Senate aide said. "That language was written pretty strongly. The more folks delved into it, the more concerned they became that it puts the U.S. in a very aggressive posture. Everyone wants to do everything they can to support Israel, but more folks are beginning to look inwards again and are very war-weary."

Of the 59 cosponsors on the legislation, 16 are Democrats. But it is hard to find any Democratic cosponsor who is eager to talk about the bill these days. Many dodged questions, while others such as Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Christopher Coons of Delaware, and Ben Cardin of Maryland are frank that they are not pushing for a vote.

Manchin said he intended the bill to send a message of support for Israel and underscore a goal of upending Iran's nuclear-weapons ambitions. But he said that a vote could actually cost his sponsorship of the bill.

"I never intended for that bill to come to a vote and debate," he said. "If they start moving it forward I might need to start making a decision about whether I stay on the bill or not."

Even Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, who is the lead Democrat sponsoring sanctions legislation, is noncommittal about whether he wants to see his bill become law.

When asked if it was still his goal to push for a vote on the bill, he sidestepped.

"It is still my intention to work to ensure that Iran doesn't get nuclear-weapons capability, which is different than just nuclear weapons," he said. "So we are considering everything including perusing the sanctions that we've laid out at some point in time to achieve that goal to make sure they don't."

He declined to elaborate on what other course of action he might consider.