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Did Pro-Diplomacy Backlash Stop Steny Hoyer From Nixing Obama’s Deal to Prevent War With Iran?

Steny Hoyer of Maryland. (Photo: Center for Strategic & International Studies / Flickr)

A New York Times editorial on December 9, 2013, warned that while “either side could undermine the November interim agreement, and with it the best chance in 30 years for a genuine thaw in Iranian-American relations, the more serious threat seems to be on the American side.”

The Times‘ concern was that some Congressional Democrats would collaborate with pro-AIPAC Republicans to pass new sanctions on Iran – a violation of the interim deal that likely would blow up the diplomatic process – or to pass legislation that would try to tie the hands of American negotiators from reaching a realistic long-term deal with Iran:

In recent days, however, reports have circulated in Washington that two members of the Senate – Robert Menendez, a Democrat, and Mark Kirk, a Republican – are preparing legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran’s remaining exports and strategic industries if, at the end of six months, the interim agreement goes nowhere. Both Iran and the White House have warned that such legislation could be fatal to the agreement. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, told Time and The New York Times in an interview in Tehran on Saturday that “the entire deal is dead” even if the penalties do not take effect for six months.

Similar mischief is afoot in the House. The Washington Post reported that Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic minority whip, was working with Eric Cantor, the Republican majority leader, on a resolution that could sharply limit the outlines of a final agreement or call for imposing new sanctions.

The Times noted that Hoyer’s office described the idea that he would sign on to any resolution that would undermine the White House as “preposterous.” But The Times was justly alarmed that the idea that Hoyer might help hard-line Republicans undermine Obama’s diplomatic breakthrough with Iran ever saw the light of day in the first place.

In the initial Washington Post report by Greg Sargent on December 6, to which The Times referred, the word preposterous did not appear:

Hoyer’s office confirmed to me that Cantor had produced a bill and shared it with him, but declined to discuss details. “Cantor has a bill, and it’s being reviewed by our office,” Hoyer spokesperson Stephanie Young said. “No decisions have been made.”

That definitely gave the impression that Hoyer was considering cosponsoring Cantor’s bill, as many Democrats feared. The word preposterous appears in Sargent’s second update:

UPDATE II: Steny Hoyer spokesperson Stephanie Young adds more:

“Mr. Cantor has a resolution. It’s being reviewed and absolutely no decisions have been made. It’s preposterous to think that Mr. Hoyer would sign on to any resolution he believes would undermine the White House or negotiations.”

This sequence of events strongly suggests that 1) it was plausible, as many feared, that Hoyer would consider signing onto Cantor’s bill and that 2) pushback from pro-diplomacy Democrats helped make Hoyer step back from the idea.

This all matters because there’s a good deal of cynicism outside the Beltway regarding the utility of engagement with Congress now in favor of diplomacy with Iran. On the one hand, you have people who believe that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is so powerful in Congress that resistance to AIPAC’s demands for new sanctions on Iran would be futile. On the other hand you have people who believe that the “deep state” in the United States already has decided to go for a détente with Iran and resistance by AIPAC to the deep state’s desire for a thaw with Iran is going to be futile. If either of these extreme, one-dimensional causation stories are true, then there’s no point to engaging with Congress on behalf of diplomacy.

But if reality lies in the middle, if the outcome is contingent, if powerful forces pushing from opposite directions are roughly matched, then it makes sense to engage Congress in favor of diplomacy, and against legislation that would blow up diplomacy.

Why wait until demonstrators are in the street against the next war to engage Congress? By then it might be too late. The Friends Committee on National Legislation has established a toll-free number to call Congress in defense of diplomacy and against Cantor’s bill: 1-855-686-6927. My cellphone says it took me 1 minute, 40 seconds to call my representative. You can report your call here.