WASHINGTON -- The White House on Thursday challenged a group of senators to admit they are working to push the country toward war with Iran, upping the tension between the administration and Senate advocates of tough new sanctions amid nuclear negotiations.
"If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be up front with the American public and say so," Bernadette Meehan, National Security Council spokeswoman, said in a statement. "Otherwise, it’s not clear why any member of Congress would support a bill that possibly closes the door on diplomacy and makes it more likely that the United States will have to choose between military options or allowing Iran’s nuclear program to proceed."
The "certain members" the White House is referring to are led by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who is pushing legislation, backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, that would tighten sanctions on the Iranian regime despite the ongoing negotiations.
Advocates of a peace deal with Iran warn that toughening sanctions now strengthens the hand of hard-liners in Iran who can argue the U.S. is not negotiating in good faith.
The White House has consistently signaled its opposition to the bill, warning that it could unravel the delicate talks underway, and has promised a veto if it passes. But Thursday's statement is the first public accusation that the senators pushing the bill may have motivations they are not "up front with."
The bill is backed by a majority of the Senate. A Democratic leadership aide told HuffPost Thursday there were no plans to bring the bill to the floor soon.
After Menendez introduced his bill, 10 Democratic committee chairs released a joint letter warning his action could move the nation closer to war. At least 14 other Democrats have so far joined Menendez in bucking the administration.
"It's important to remember that it was sanctions that brought the Iranians to the negotiating table in the first place," Adam Sharon, Menendez's spokesperson, told HuffPost. "The preferred outcome is successful negotiations conducted by the Obama Administration and our allies that results in a peaceful and verifiable termination of Iran's nuclear weapons program."
"Prospective sanctions reinforce this objective should the Iranians fail to negotiate in good faith," he continued. "This legislation endorses the Obama administration's efforts, supports continued negotiations, gives the administration a year of flexibility to secure an agreement, respects the sanctions relief Iran is set to receive, and prevents any new sanctions from taking effect while good-faith negotiations are underway."
Below is Meehan's statement in full:
This bill is in direct contradiction to the Administration’s work to peacefully resolve the international community’s concerns with Iran’s nuclear program. We know that this proposed legislation would divide the international community, drive the Iranians to take a harder line, and possibly end negotiations. This bill would have a negative bearing on the sanctions regime too. Let us not forget: sanctions work because we convinced our partners to take the steps that we seek. If our partners no longer believe that we are serious about finding a negotiated solution, then our sanctions regime would suffer.
If Congress passes this bill, it will be proactively taking an action that will make diplomacy less likely to succeed. The American people have been clear that they prefer a peaceful resolution to this issue. If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be up front with the American public and say so. Otherwise, it’s not clear why any member of Congress would support a bill that possibly closes the door on diplomacy and makes it more likely that the United States will have to choose between military options or allowing Iran’s nuclear program to proceed.
The President has been clear that he has a responsibility to fully test whether we can achieve a comprehensive solution through diplomatic means, before he pursues alternatives. Passing new sanctions legislation right now will undermine our efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution.
Jennifer Bendery contributed reporting.