With all eyes on Islamic State, Democrats worry the US could lose focus on Iran
By KAROUN DEMIRJIAN | The Washington Post | Published: December 14, 2015
WASHINGTON — Washington is all but singularly focused on how to combat and protect the country from the Islamic State.
But some Democrats say that President Obama and his administration should be paying more attention to Iran, which reportedly launched new ballistic missile tests in November.
Many Democrats are acutely worried about the reported tests - especially after many of them backed Obama's efforts to reach an historic pact to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions in exchange for a gradual lifting of U.S. sanctions. While there are provisions in the deal to "snap back" sanctions if Iran violates the accord, they worry that smaller steps - like ballistic missile tests in contravention of U.N. Security Council resolutions - could establish a bad precedent.
"I understand that most of Congress and the administration are very distracted by the global refugee crisis, by the terrorist attacks in Iran, by our conflicts with ISIS," said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. "The reality is with this deal, I'm on the administration's side, but they need to be doing more. . .we have to have a menu of responses that we and our allies have agreed on and that we will take. Or the Iranians will pocket it and keep moving."
Republicans - including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who opposed the nuclear pact - openly worry that if the Obama administration doesn't punish Iran now, it will fail to castigate it in the future for any infractions of the Iran deal, which Congress failed to reject before a Sept. 17 deadline.
"Iran violates U.N. Security Council resolutions because it knows neither this administration nor the U.N. Security Council is likely to take any action," Corker said. "If we cannot respond to a clear violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution, I have no faith that the U.N. and the Obama administration will implement any form of snapback in response to the Iranian violations of the nuclear agreement."
The missile test would not in itself be a reason to rip up the Iran pact - though it would, like Iran's first post-deal ballistic missile test in October, likely be a violation of United Nations Security Council resolution 1929. As such, any review of Iran's actions will be examined by the U.N.
But concerns exist about Iran's behavior exist in both chambers of Congress, where some of the president's strongest allies on the nuclear deal are joining with some of his sharpest critics to demand a concerted response to the missile tests.
"It is critically important that the United Nations Security Council continue to enforce the resolutions that government Iran's acquisition and development of missile technology," Reps. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., who supported the Iran deal, wrote in a letter to Obama co-authored with Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., who did not. "Should the UNSC fail to do so, the United States must take action on its own."
Recent revelations in a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran was actively pursuing nuclear weapons development until 2009 have sparked new distrust of the Islamic Republican among lawmakers, regardless of their current take on the missile test.
"We know even from the IAEA reports that they were engaged in a program - they weren't truthful about that," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky adding that "we need to be on top of what Iran is doing and do everything we can to have full compliance"
Some Democrats demurred when asked if the administration was being proactive enough.
"We have a U.N. process that needs to be followed first - you don't go to DEFCON 5," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said. But, she added, "It's important to enforce our sanctions when there's a violation."
Republicans have leapt on the ballistic test and Obama administration officials as complicit in allowing such infractions to occur.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power told lawmakers last week said that the administration was reviewing the reports and weighing taking a complaint to the U.N. as potential "bilateral leverage" to keep Iran in line. Republicans weren't exactly convinced.
Democrats who have previously joined Republicans to call for a response to such ballistic tests are giving the administration a little more of the benefit of the doubt.
"The first thing we have to do is we have to, every time there's an infraction, shine a spotlight on it, call on the international community to act, and use all the leverage at our disposal," said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., judging that the administration did a "very good job" of responding quickly the last time Iran completed a test. "To the extent the world concludes with us that Iran isn't living up to their agreements, then we have to decide what to do."
But not all Democrats are sure that the world community - meaning the U.N. Security Council, where the United States and its European allies do not always see eye-to-eye with Russia and China - will be ready to take harsh steps against Iran. In that case, many say the United States should plan a response that may have to be carried out mostly alone.
"We don't expect that will end up with an effective reaction - we don't think that's going to happen," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Ben Cardin, D-Md., said of the U.N. review process. "So therefore, we think the only way forward is for U.S. action and European action."
"I think it's extremely important that there be effective enforcement to show that there will be zero tolerance for violations," continued Cardin, who did not vote for the Iran deal - but has encouraged his colleagues to accept that the deal is in effect and should be respected.
"Admittedly this is not the [Iran deal]," Cardin said, "but it's an indicator and it's important."