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Obama Warns Congress Off Iran Sanctions

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In last night's State of the Union address, the president had the opportunity to address the group of lawmakers that could very well determine whether his legacy includes a deal that resolves the nuclear crisis with Iran or whether the U.S. continues on a path toward an unnecessary and costly war. The president dedicated four paragraphs of his speech to Iran diplomacy, giving a forceful statement that it is diplomacy, not pressure, that is primarily responsible for the nuclear deal and warned that he would veto any sanctions bill that threatened Iran diplomacy.

Such a reminder is necessary because sanctions have been falsely credited with creating the opening for Iran diplomacy, and many on Capitol Hill have bought into the idea that more sanctions will equate to a better nuclear deal. This idea discounts the decisive role the Iranian people had in returning moderates to power that believe it is in Iran's interest to find a win-win solution with the U.S. Rather than react to a more moderate Iran by supporting new sanctions and pressure, confirming Iranian hardliners' warnings that sanctions will never be lifted through diplomatic engagement, Obama stated his belief that "we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed."

Twelve years removed from President George W. Bush's infamous axis of evil speech, which devastated hopes for broader reconciliation between the U.S. and Iran in the wake of cooperation on Afghanistan, Obama struck a far different chord -- prioritizing diplomacy over threats of war. According to the president, "If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today."

Let's hope the president's message sinks in, because reflexive congressional support for punishing Iran regardless of the consequences remains one of the key obstacles to shattering 34 years of mutual enmity and securing a nuclear deal -- and the possibility of a brighter future for the people of the United States and Iran. Over the past few weeks, a determined push by Sens. Robert Menendez and Mark Kirk to impose new sanctions on Iran gathered 59 cosponsors (16 Democrats, 43 Republicans), before stalling in the face of determined opposition from Senate Democrats and the looming threat of a presidential veto. Now, cosponsors of the sanctions bill, including Sens. Joe Manchin and Richard Blumenthal have indicated that the bill shouldn't come up for a vote. Supporters are falling off, not joining.

There were numerous problems with the Menendez-Kirk bill, including that it would violate the terms of the nuclear agreement by imposing new sanctions, despite the U.S. promising, along with our negotiating partners, to abstain from doing so in the first phase of the nuclear agreement. To delay the implementation of those sanctions, the president would have to certify measures above and beyond what Iran agreed to in the nuclear deal, including certifying that Iran is not conducting missile tests or supporting terrorist groups. Further, the bill would set unnecessary and unattainable red lines for a final deal, including that Iran must dismantle its entire enrichment infrastructure -- violating a clear Iranian red line in talks.

Now opponents of diplomacy are seeking to scrap the sanctions provisions of the bill and move forward with congressional resolutions that define expectations for the end game. This would provide an opportunity for opponents of diplomacy and a nuclear deal -- both inside and outside Congress -- to sabotage negotiations by setting unrealistic expectations. Any language requiring Iran to dismantle facilities or certain numbers of centrifuges, for example, or mandating that Iran abandon any enrichment capacity -- would reduce leverage for a final deal and make one more difficult, if not impossible, to attain. Congress shouldn't make our negotiators' job more difficult than it already is.

Ultimately, Congress needs to move away from threatening to play spoiler to making sure the President has the authority to leverage existing sanctions in exchange for concrete nuclear concessions. With decades of congressional sanctions on the books, including recent sanctions that only provide the president with temporary waiver authorities, Congress needs to work with the administration in order to obtain the authority to permanently lift sanctions to extract the best deal possible. Such a move would provide clear assurances that we can uphold our end of the bargain. Without those assurances, our negotiators have a weak hand and might only be able to obtain a weak and reversible deal that distances but fails to eliminate the threats of war and an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Fortunately, there is room for common ground. As the president indicated, preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon -- without the risks of war -- is a goal we should all share.