Bob Menendez, Bibi & the GOP: The alliance sabotaging Iranian nuclear talks

A bipartisan, international group of hawks just can't wait to blow up the administration's diplomatic efforts

Published January 22, 2015 5:45PM (EST)

Bob Menendez                (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Bob Menendez (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Who's up for a military confrontation with Iran? You? You? No? The United States Congress is.

And at least the neocons are honest: they're perfectly upfront that no nuclear deal with Iran will be adequate for them and the only way to resolve this ("resolve") is to bomb the dickens out of Iran. Much more frustrating are the Democrats, like Sen. Bob Mendendez, who claim that they're only seeking to impose new sanctions on Iran to aid the administration's diplomatic efforts.

You know who doesn't seem to think that new sanctions, such as those put forth by Mendendez and Sen. Bob Corker, would help the administration's diplomatic efforts? The administration. The American diplomats who are actually doing the negotiating. Or their equivalents from the European Union, Britain, Germany, and France. (Remember when conservatives were all mad at the administration for stiffing dear, sweet France? Well, that was a whole week ago. We've reverted to the old, comfortable paradigm.) Hilldawg, too.

In Tuesday's State of the Union, President Obama reiterated his call on Congress to please not go out of its way to sabotage the administration's negotiations with Iran. "New sanctions passed by this Congress," he said, "at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails — alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again. It doesn’t make sense." He seems to be making this fairly straightforward case -- wait a few months! -- in public almost every day. He made it at length, and with backup from British Prime Minister David Cameron, in a press conference late last week. It doesn't appear to be helping much.

On the Republican side, that's to be expected. They love war almost as much as they love sabotaging the Obama presidency. And yet their move yesterday to fuse these twin desires was still shockingly brazen.

Speaker John Boehner, without consulting the White House, invited Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress in February. (Netanyahu appears to have accepted for March -- a couple of weeks before he's up for reelection.) It was offensive enough the last time Netanyahu spoke to a joint session of Congress to trash the administration's diplomatic efforts. That was three years ago, when President Obama was out of the country. But this is something of a whole other order. This comes right at crunch time for U.S. negotiators to finalize a deal. Netanyahu, a man of many political talents but with discretion not among them, will likely urge members of Congress to reject the diplomatic efforts being carried forth by the man at the other end of Pennsylvania avenue. There's a debate now about whether Boehner's invitation is a violation of protocol. Maybe, maybe not, but debating the technical descriptor is a distraction: it's obviously obnoxious to invite a foreign leader to come and trash a head of state's foreign policy before the legislature a dozen or so blocks away.

This would be more laughable if it were the typical Republican stunt: contained within the Republican bubble, with no viable path towards becoming policy. It that were the case, President Obama could go ahead and not care about it.

But the push for new sanctions has Democratic support. Two of the most prominent supporters of "tightening the screws on Iran" (/arbitrarily ending the possibility of a diplomatic accord) are senior Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer and Menendez. They are working with Republicans to try to build a veto-proof majority on a new round of sanctions, and they may get it.

Menendez is going further off the deep end each day. At a hearing yesterday, he said, "The more I hear from the administration and its quotes, the more it sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran." Did the President spill wine on Mendendez at a holiday party or something?

It's time for Menendez and the Democrats who are going along with him to show the same sort of honesty that the neocons and Netanyahu are showing: this isn't about helping the administration in its negotiations by passing sanctions that all negotiators involved say will do the exact opposite. All it does is offer the hard-liners in Iran an excuse to abandon negotiations, which in turn offers Western hard-liners an excuse to expedite a military confrontation. If Menendez and his band of Democrats join Republicans, Netanyahu, and their fellow hawks in Iran and cause negotiations to collapse, they better be ready to accept the blame.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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