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Congress using Iran to handcuff Obama on foreign affairs

William O. Beeman | 11/29/2011, 9:01 a.m.

Congress using Iran to handcuff Obama on foreign affairs

The U.S. Congress is using opposition to Iran as an excuse to attack President Barack Obama’s executive authority in an ill-advised piece of legislation.

The “Iran Threat Reduction Act” HR1905, passed last month by the House Foreign Relations Committee, neither reduces an Iranian threat, nor puts significant pressure on Iran’s leaders to change policies with which the United States disagrees.

If passed, the House bill would, however, make it illegal for any American diplomat to speak to or have any contact with an Iranian official unless the president certifies to Congress that not talking to the Iranian officials “would pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the vital national security interests of the United States” 15 days prior to that contact.

Former U.S. Ambassadors William Luers and Thomas Pickering point out that this bill is not only illegal, it places the United States in greater danger in the world. They write, “A war with Iran would be madness, and catastrophic for U.S. interests. Surely even the most hawkish on the Hill and in our chattering class must know in their heart of hearts that fact ... Congress should more correctly encourage the administration to get to know Iran and Iranians as the time-tested way of protecting our interests while avoiding conflict.”

In addition to tying the president’s hands on diplomacy — a violation of the constitutional principle of separation of powers — the bill also prevents the president from issuing waivers to existing Iran trade sanctions for any reason, singling out the sale of vital airplane parts for civilian aircraft.

Iran’s civilian air fleet is aging, and without replacement parts, air travel on Iranian carriers poses a danger to the public, including American citizens who travel to Iran. The largest group to be affected is the more than a million Iranian-Americans who regularly travel to Iran. This bill puts their lives in danger; it punishes the public, not the Iranian leaders.

These two bills — a companions was also introduced in the U.S. Senate —  have been introduced by parties who are angry at President Obama for his pledge to improve relations with Iran after his 2008 election, repudiating the policies of the Bush era.

They want to punish him for his early stance, even though his policies toward Iran are now virtually the same as those of President George W. Bush. Clearly a bonus for Republican supporters of the bill is the limitations it places on the president’s independence in conducting foreign affairs.

Many powerful groups in Washington lobbied for this bill including the American Israel Public Affairs Council (AIPAC) and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). These organizations are dedicated to making certain that the United States and Iran never achieve formal relations.

The aims of these organizations are misguided. The United States has in fact paid a serious price by not maintaining diplomatic contact with Iran for more than four decades.

Iran’s actions in the world have been irksome to the United States government, but the inability to even talk with Iranian officials has deepened misunderstanding between the two nations. As a result even small matters of dispute that would be easily resolved under normal diplomatic contact become tangled and threatening.