In an unusual display of high-stakes arm twisting, both the White House and its critics in Congress have called in foreign leaders to help lobby U.S. lawmakers on whether to impose new economic sanctions on Iran amid tense negotiations on its nuclear program.
President Obama fired the first round last week when visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed at a White House news conference that he had telephoned several members of the Senate to urge them to heed Obama's plea to hold off on any new sanctions for fear of derailing the talks.
On Wednesday, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) fired back, announcing that he had invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposes any concessions to Iran, to address a joint session of Congress on Feb. 11 — and notified the White House only after the Israeli leader had accepted.
The visit promised to renew confrontation between Obama and Netanyahu, who have clashed repeatedly over the last six years over Iran and an array of other issues. When the Israeli leader takes the podium for his third address to Congress, he will be challenging a White House foreign policy priority from only a few blocks away.
"This is only going to exacerbate tensions," said Robert Danin, a veteran U.S. diplomat in the Middle East who is now with the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations. It would also sharpen tensions between the newly installed Republican-led Congress and the administration, he said.
The White House made no secret of its displeasure. Press Secretary Josh Earnest suggested both Boehner and Netanyahu had committed a breach of diplomatic protocol.
"The typical protocol would suggest that the leader of one country would contact the leader of another country when he's traveling there," Earnest said aboard Air Force One as Obama traveled to Boise, Idaho. "That certainly is how President Obama's trips are planned when he travels overseas. This particular event seems to be a departure from that protocol."
Earnest declined to say whether the two leaders would meet, adding, "We haven't heard from the Israelis directly about the trip."
Boehner was unapologetic, saying that Obama had "papered over" the nuclear threat from Iran in his State of the Union address Tuesday. In his speech, Obama repeated his vow to veto new sanctions, warning that congressional action at this point could undercut the fragile talks underway and increase the risk of war.
"I don't believe I'm poking anyone in the eye," Boehner said. "Congress can make this decision on its own."
Boehner issued his invitation to Netanyahu by reaching out to the Israeli ambassador two days after the new session of Congress opened this month, aides said. He didn't notify the White House or the State Department until Wednesday morning, shortly before he told reporters.
Allied leaders occasionally weigh in on issues before Congress, including major trade and arms deals, and sometimes even on decisions to go to war. But foreign leaders generally don't want to be seen interfering in domestic issues, especially in public.
In this case, Netanyahu could be accused of meddling in a U.S. dispute, and Congress could be accused of meddling in Israeli politics. Netanyahu is facing reelection in March, and his appearance before Congress could give him a political boost at home, analysts said.
It also could backfire. Chemi Shalev, a columnist for the liberal Haaretz newspaper, warned that if the negotiations with Iran fail because of new sanctions, Netanyahu "is exposing himself to the claim that he was a main protagonist in driving the United State to the brink of war."On Capitol Hill, Boehner's invitation was seen as an aggressive, even unprecedented, move that could result in a more partisan-tinged debate over Iran than would have otherwise unfolded.
Keeping the White House out of the loop, moreover, was viewed as a provocative move that could drive a further wedge between the president and the prime minister.
"If this takes on an unnecessarily partisan hue — on an issue that's already challenging — that adds another layer of challenge that isn't helpful," said a Senate Democratic aide, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the issue.
Many Democrats are inclined to support tougher sanctions on Iran, hesitant to look weak on foreign policy even if that means a vote against the president. Still, passing a veto-proof sanctions bill is far from assured.
The White House has urged Congress to hold off for a few months, and many Democrats are likely to stand down for now until it's clear whether the talks are making progress.
Administration critics welcomed Boehner's invitation as a way to not only reinforce U.S. support for Israel but to accelerate sanctions measures that have stalled amid objections from the White House.
"Is the White House indicating they don't want the head of state from Israel to address the U.S. Congress?" asked Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The tit-for-tat is hardly over. The White House will release statements of support from French and German officials in the next few days, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a Senate committee Wednesday.
Blinken also said he couldn't rule out that the negotiations with Iran might be extended a third time if a deal still isn't complete by July, the current deadline.
The White House has repeatedly urged Congress not to impose additional sanctions on Iran while six world powers — the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — seek to complete a deal with Tehran aimed at preventing it from developing nuclear weapons capability. Iran is seeking relief from oil, trade and other sanctions.
Obama and aides argue that adding more penalties now would violate terms of the interim nuclear agreement, signed in November 2013, under which Iran effectively froze most of its nuclear activity while negotiations proceeded. New sanctions, the White House contends, also could split the international coalition and stick Congress with blame if the talks ultimately fail.
But many in Congress believe Iran has made insufficient concessions in the talks, and that now is the time to increase economic pressure.
Various legislative proposals are being discussed, including a joint effort between a leading Republican, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, and the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
Menendez pointedly disagreed with Obama when the president visited with Democratic senators at their private retreat last week in Baltimore, exposing the party's internal divisions.
While Obama was making the case to Democrats to "hold off," Cameron was working the phones on the Republican side of the aisle.
Among those the British leader called last Friday was Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He is considering an approach that would have Congress give an up-or-down vote to any deal the administration negotiates with Iran.
"There is no doubt that it is the leverage provided by Congress that forced Tehran to the negotiating table, and I continue to believe that Congress weighing in on this critical issue can help these negotiations succeed, not undermine them," Corker said after speaking with Cameron.