Yesterday, House leadership ignored the warning of a growing group of experts, former officials, and even their own colleagues by pushing through an Iran sanctions bill (H.R.850) that, if passed by the Senate, risks sabotaging diplomatic talks that offer the best chance to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran and avoid war. Iran's incoming president, Hassan Rouhani, has promised to enhance nuclear transparency and pursue "peace and reconciliation" with the West, while urging that no new sanctions be imposed. But with Rouhani's inauguration on Saturday, the House has already cast a vote that will undermine the new Iranian President and boost hardliners opposed to a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear standoff, increasing the likelihood that we continue to drift toward war.
While an anonymous senior administration official warned against the timing and content of the new sanctions, the administration failed to take an official stand that could have helped delay the vote until after the month-long August recess and Rouhani's inauguration. This strategy of leaving Congress in the dark, trying to read tea leaves to divine the administration's stance on the sanctions bill, contributed to its swift passage.
However, 20 Representatives showed courage and leadership on the House floor last night by voting against the new sanctions. In defying the majority of their peers (400 representatives voted in favor) and the pro-war lobby, they exposed themselves to attack. But through their forceful arguments, they provided further demonstration that there are strong advocates within Washington who are eager for a diplomatic resolution that prevents another ill-advised war of choice in the Middle East.
Before the vote, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) led 15 of his colleagues in sending a letter to House leadership urging them to delay consideration until after Rouhani is inaugurated and has a chance to engage in nuclear talks. Further, the letter called for changes to the bill to eliminate restrictions on the President's ability to waive sanctions, and to clarify that the bill is by no means an authorization for war with Iran (Eight of those who sponsored Rep. McDermott's letter, having failed to delay the vote, either voted yes or abstained). On the floor, Rep. McDermott warned "the timing of this bill could not be worse from a foreign policy perspective." McDermott also referenced the disastrous war in Iraq, when sanctions foreclosed diplomatic prospects, greatly contributed to the immense suffering of the Iraqi people, and ultimately led to war.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) also played a key role in mobilizing opposition to the bill. Ellison cited Rouhani's apparent eagerness to engage in negotiations with the West, asking "[w]hy aren't we at least curious to find out whether or not President Rouhani means that he wants to pursue this course of peace? It's what we want, is [a] negotiated settlement. Why are we slapping his hand down, when apparently the Iranian people are willing to support a candidate who is willing to extend a hand?"
These warnings were echoed by Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA), who stated, ""I can't imagine we are looking for another war of choice, that we want to escalate the rhetoric. This is the best opportunity we have had in at least 8 years, if not more. Why throw that away? The fact is that this bill empowers the very hard-liners who are the problem."
Rep. David Price (D-NC), one of the lead sponsors of a bipartisan, pro-diplomacy letter signed by 131 Representatives and sent to President Obama two weeks ago, reluctantly opposed the bill. Price, despite endorsing previous rounds of sanctions, strongly objected to the timing of the bill as it would undermine the incoming President. He warned "to rush through a new round of sanctions before the new President has even taken office could slam the window of opportunity shut before we even have a chance to test whether it is genuine."
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) argued "I think there is a possibility that that recent election makes a difference in Iran. I hope it does. But one way to guarantee that it doesn't is to tell the Iranian people, 'We don't care what you do. We're going to ratchet up the sanctions. We're going to undercut the new guy. We're going to tell you that we're just going to go down this path.' Don't poke the Iranian people in the eye and ignore the sorry history we've had of fumbling the relationship with that country."
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), warned that the diplomatic opportunity presented by the election might not last forever, but that "it is a time when I, for one, want to support the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon's ability to move forward our relationship and dialogue with Iran on this most serious matter." Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), indicated in a statement that the vote "sends the signal that the U.S. wishes to punish the Iranian people and will only settle for submission, rather than a negotiated, face saving solution that meets the security needs of the United States, Israel, and the entire international community and the economic needs of the Iranian people." And Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) released a statement that indicated "the President must have the ability to waive sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions. Yet H.R.850 places significant restrictions on the President's authority to waive sanctions."
The Representatives mentioned above, in addition to the three anti-interventionist Republicans and ten other Democrats who voted no on new sanctions (listed below), deserve particular praise for standing up to the hawks. They should hear from supporters of peace that we appreciate their courage and leadership.
The next time Congress has a vote to pass new sanctions that jeopardize diplomacy with Iran, will the administration remain silent and fail to back their legislative allies? And, with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) joining Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) to push these new sanctions through the House, will Democratic leadership once again side with the pro-war crowd? If so, we might miss this major potential opportunity and, as we continue to drift toward war, wonder what could have been.
Representatives Who Voted "No" on H.R.850:
Justin Amash (R-MI)
Earl Blumenauer (D-OR)
André Carson (D-IN)
Donna Edwards (D-MD)
Keith Ellison (D-MN)
Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ)
Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX)
Walter B. Jones (R-NC)
Barbara Lee (D-CA)
Thomas Massie (R-KY)
Betty McCollum (D-MN)
Jim McDermott (D-WA)
Jim McGovern (D-MA)
George Miller (D-CA)
James P. Moran (D-VA)
Beto O'Rourke (D-TX)
Donald M. Payne, Jr. (D-NJ)
David E. Price (D-NC)
Peter J. Visclosky (D-IN)
Maxine Waters (D-CA)
* Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) signed the McDermott letter, while voting "present," while Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), signed and abstained. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA), Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) signed the McDermott letter while voting "yes."