Washington has been diverted in recent days by the drama created when House Republicans — without consulting the Obama administration — invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress next month on the subject of Iran's nuclear program. Presumably he will repeat his warning that “the greatest danger facing humanity could soon be upon us: a militant Islamic regime armed with nuclear weapons.”
The invitation to Netanyahu isn't that significant in itself. But it is part of a larger congressional effort — not limited to Republicans — to meddle in negotiations taking place between Iran and the so-called P5 plus 1 — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.
The chief manifestation of that is the proposed legislation to impose new sanctions against Iran's oil and banking sectors. Even though they wouldn't take effect unless a June 30 deadline passed without an agreement, President Obama warned in his State of the Union address that action by Congress now would “all but guarantee that diplomacy fails — alienating America from its allies, making it harder to maintain sanctions and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again.” The foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany and the European Union have expressed the same concern.
Sometimes, proponents of the new sanctions suggest disingenuously that they desire to improve prospects for an agreement in which Iran would forswear the military use of nuclear power. The idea is that Congress would be playing bad cop to Obama's good cop. But other comments suggest that sanctions proponents fear not that the talks will fail but that they will succeed. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has said that Obama would be disappointed if he “expects us to stand idly by and do nothing while he cuts a bad deal with Iran.”
Frustration about the protracted negotiations is understandable. The target date for a comprehensive agreement has been extended twice, and it's open to debate whether a further extension would be justified if the current deadline isn't met.
But the diplomats who are actually conducting the negotiations insist that meaningful progress has been made and that Iran has abided by its commitment not to expand its nuclear program during the talks in exchange for limited relief from existing sanctions. If that's the case, legislation by Congress now could derail the diplomatic process. Why take that risk?
If the current negotiations ultimately fail to produce an agreement, there will be time for Congress to ratchet up sanctions. Playing “bad cop” now would be bad policy.
Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion