Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is turning to Twitter to deliver a simple request to a sympathetic U.S. Congress: find a way of preventing the Obama administration from lifting its sanctions on Iran as part of a far-reaching nuclear deal.
Secretary of State John Kerry will be making an unexpected visit tomorrow to Geneva, the site of the ongoing nuclear talks, in what is being widely seen as a sign of significant progress to an agreement. Kerry's trip comes at the end of a second round of talks between high-level U.S. and Iranian negotiators that both sides have publicly described as serious and substantive.
Netanyahu, joined by many in Congress, has been watching those talks with mounting alarm. Israeli leaders worry that the White House will give away too much, too soon, by striking a deal with Tehran that lifts or relaxes the current sanctions without bringing Iran's nuclear program to a complete stop. On Thursday night, the Israeli prime minister abandoned any attempt at diplomatic niceties and condemned the talks in unusually strong language.
"If the news from Geneva is true, this is the deal of the century for #Iran," he Tweeted.
Netanyahu appears to be playing to three separate audiences. First, he's trying to reassure a jittery Israeli public that he's prepared to use military force, alone if necessary, to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Second, he's reminding the White House that its closest allies in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and other major oil producers, are deeply opposed to any deal with Iran. Third, and perhaps most importantly, he's urging lawmakers from both parties to do everything in their power to block, or at least complicate, any White House move to weaken or remove the sanctions.
Some powerful lawmakers are already looking for ways of doing so. Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is preparing legislation that would block the White House from loosening the current sanctions unless Iran stopped all of its enrichment and reprocessing activity and completely suspended its ballistic missile program, steps the White House doesn't appear to be insisting on in the current talks.
Corker's potential legislation has little chance of becoming law, in large part because of Democratic opposition. And the laws currently on the books give the administration broad latitude to waive some or all of the Iran sanctions. President Obama has used those powers to lift many of those measures with a stroke of his pen.
Congress can draft any sanctions it wants to, but the White House has tremendous leeway to decide how strictly they get enforced. The legislation that imposed tough sanctions on Iran's central bank gives Obama a "national security waiver" he can use to temporarily soften or lift the measures. The sanctions put in place to punish countries that buy Iranian oil allow the State Department to issue waivers to those that have significantly reduced their purchases. Key allies like Japan and the ten members of the European Union have been protected from the sanctions since the measures were put in place several years ago.
Congress has tried to make it as hard as possible for the White House to use its waiver powers. To lift the sanctions on Iran's central bank, for instance, the administration has to certify -- in writing -- that fully enforcing the measures would harm the national security interests of the U.S. The waiver, which the White House has never used, would also have to be renewed every 120 days, a measure lawmakers inserted into the bills to force the White House to face a heated political fight over the sanctions every four months.
Still, a determined Congress could potentially find ways of stymieing the White House. Robert Einhorn, formerly a top State Department official working on nuclear nonproliferation issues, told reporters last week that lawmakers could pass legislation removing the waivers from the existing sanctions provisions or imposing new ones that simply don't contain any waivers whatsoever. "Congress can do all sorts of things with sanctions," he said. "Congress can always pass a law removing some of the waiver authority from existing bills."
The odds of enough Democrats turning against their own president to make that happen are low. However, the Brookings Institution's Suzanne Maloney noted last week that final passage of a bill isn't required to have a big impact in Iran. "It's the optics," she said. "If there's any action on this bill, it plays into the narrative perfectly of the hardliners ... They're always on alert that the international community and the United States is trying to pull one over on them."
Netanyahu, meanwhile, has little to do but issue rhetorical thunderbolts and hope the talks fall through. If they don't, he and his allies may not be able to do much of anything to keep the White House from letting Iran out from under the sanctions that have decimated the economy for years.
John Hudson contributed to this report