A protester, left, approaches President Hassan Rouhani's car leaving Mehrabad airport after his arrival from the U.S. in Tehran, Iran, Sept. 28. Iranians from across the political spectrum hailed Saturday the historic phone conversation between President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart Rouhani, reflecting wide support for an initiative that has the backing of both reformists and the country's conservative clerical leadership.
AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi
WASHINGTON — A war-weary Congress generally backs President Barack Obama’s outreach to Iran, but with tougher U.S. economic measures against Tehran on the way, the president’s diplomatic task could get harder if he doesn’t make quick progress.
Obama’s phone call last week to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was a groundbreaking conversation.
It was the first contact in more than 30 years between the leaders of the two countries and an about-face from when Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, included Iran in his “axis of evil” with North Korea and Iraq.
The sentiment in Washington’s political circles has changed, too. Five years ago, Obama the presidential candidate was hit with criticism for suggesting talks with the Iranians without preconditions. Then during his re-election campaign, Obama was called weak on Iran.
Now, even leading Senate hawks, such as his 2008 opponent, John McCain of Arizona, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have backed Obama’s careful engagement effort. They say it is worth testing Iran’s seriousness even if they’re skeptical about Rouhani’s new course of moderation and disdainful of Tehran’s human rights record and alleged support for terrorism.
The debate essentially has shifted away from whether it’s worth talking to Iran to debating the details of engaging Iran, which claims it is not seeking nuclear weapons.
While Obama’s gesture to Tehran hasn’t prompted major GOP criticism, it has fed into domestic arguments over health care and spending levels. Several Republicans in Congress have lambasted the president for appearing “more willing” to talk to Rouhani than with them.
While the current government shutdown may have muted congressional reaction to Obama’s phone call with Rouhani, lawmakers are moving forward on legislation for new sanctions, with plans to tee them up so the president can use enhanced sanctions as part of his negotiating leverage.
In July, the House approved tough new sanctions on Iran’s oil sector and other industries. The bill blacklists any business in Iran’s mining and construction sectors and commits the United States to the goal of ending all Iranian oil sales worldwide by 2015.
The House adopted the legislation by a 400-20 vote. It builds on U.S. penalties that went into effect last year that have cut Iran’s petroleum exports in half and left its economy in tatters. China, India and several other Asian nations continue to buy billions of dollars of Iranian oil each month, providing Tehran with much of the money it spends on its weapons and nuclear programs.
No bill would likely be finalized before November. That gives the administration at least several weeks to see whether Iran under Rouhani changes course.
Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., a member of the Senate Banking Committee, is in favor of a tough new round of sanctions. “We should judge Iranian leaders by their actions, not their words,” Kirk said Tuesday.
“So long as Iran continues to pursue a nuclear weapons capability, build longer-range ballistic missiles, sponsor terrorism around the world and abuse human rights, the Senate should impose maximum economic pressure on Iran to give diplomacy a chance to succeed.”