By Paul Richter
Tribune Washington Bureau (MCT)
---- — WASHINGTON — The White House launched a harsh attack on supporters of a Senate bill to impose fresh sanctions on Iran, suggesting that they have a hidden goal of drawing the country into another Mideast war.
If supporters “want the United States to take military action, they should be upfront with the American people and say so,” Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, 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 continue.”
The White House argues that by driving Iran from the bargaining table, the tough new sanctions bill could undermine international negotiations aimed at an agreement to ensure that Tehran’s nuclear program remains peaceful. Many nations fear that Iran, despite its denials, seeks nuclear-weapon capability.
Iran and six major foreign powers, including the U.S., signed an interim deal in November that eases some sanctions and limited the Iranian nuclear program while the two sides pursue a full deal.
The White House statement, issued late Thursday, was the first time the administration had accused sanctions advocates of a concealed agenda.
It escalated the administration’s criticism of powerful Democratic legislators whom the White House needs on many issues, including Sen. Chuck E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who is No. 3 in Senate Democratic leadership, and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
President Barack Obama has identified the Iran nuclear deal as a top foreign policy priority, and he and other top administration officials have conducted an unusual all-out lobbying campaign to stop the bill.
The bill would seek to cut Iran’s all-important oil exports to near zero if the Islamic Republic fails to cooperate in negotiations that are expected to last six months to a year. The measure was introduced last month with 26 supporters, but now has 59, according to the official count. Advocates claim more will soon sign up.
Iran sanctions bills have had an almost unstoppable force in Congress. But the White House knows that Americans’ desire to avoid another Mideast war is also powerful.
One Senate aide said the White House’s statement “is an attempt to play the anti-war card: They want to remind the senators that they could be blamed if diplomacy collapses and we’re looking at a bombing campaign.”