Cameron, Obama Say Iran Sanctions Should Wait

Cameron, Obama Say Iran Sanctions Should Wait
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“Barack” and “David” – two world leaders who professed a warm friendship and similar world views Friday at the White House – agreed that Congress should hold off for several months before deciding whether to pressure Iran with sanctions while nuclear negotiations continue.

President Obama, who made an appeal to Senate Democrats to “just hold your fire” during a party retreat in Baltimore Thursday and again on Friday, vowed to veto any sanctions legislation that reaches him. A small group of Democrats working with the new Republican-controlled Senate have said they will vote on such legislation in the next few weeks. The House has already done so.

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to appeal directly to members of the Senate during his two-day visit to the United States was unusual, but not unprecedented, and clearly met with Obama’s approval.

The prime minister, speaking at a joint news conference during the two leaders’ 12th meeting, said he telephoned senators to voice Great Britain’s support for difficult negotiations that have extended for more than a year, and to echo the president’s view that embracing sanctions now would not be productive to the outcome of the negotiations, despite some lawmakers’ convictions that pressure on Tehran would not scuttle the talks.

“I have contacted a couple of senators this morning and I may speak to one or two more this afternoon,” Cameron said in the East Room, “simply to make the point as a country that stands alongside America in these vital negotiations that it's the opinion of the United Kingdom that further sanctions or further threat of sanctions at this point won't actually help to bring the talks to a successful conclusion, and they could fracture the international unity that there's been which has been so valuable in presenting a united front to Iran.”

Obama used the news conference to reiterate his strong disagreement with members of Congress from both parties who believe now is the time for the legislative branch to pressure Iran, rather than at a future point if international negotiations crumble. The president repeated his belief that talks have less than a 50-50 chance of success, but that Congress should not feel impatient to punish Iran while a nuclear accord remains possible.

In acknowledging deep congressional mistrust of Iran, the president also touched on Republicans’ suspicions that he and his administration would settle for a flawed deal in pursuit of tough goals.

“I think there is sometimes the view that this regime cannot be trusted, that effectively, negotiations with Iran are pointless,” the president said. “And since these claims are being made by individuals who see Iran as a mortal threat and want as badly as we do to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon, the question then becomes, ‘Well, what other alternatives exactly are available?’”

Obama, gesturing animatedly with his hands as Cameron stood to his right, said “nobody's interested in some, you know, document that undermines our sanctions and gives Iran the possibility of, whether covertly or gradually, building up its nuclear weapons capacity. We're not going to allow that.”

The two leaders also described a shared optimism that violent extremism, in tragic view in France, slowly and systematically will be “defeated” because of counter-arguments about Islam and by security interventions and economic opportunities wielded by democracies to rebut what Cameron twice referred to as terrorists’ “death cult of a narrative.”

Obama said the “critical weapon against terrorism is our adherence to our freedoms and values at home, including the pluralism, and the respect and tolerance that defines us as diverse and democratic societies.”

At the outset of his seventh year in office, Obama gave a nod to Cameron’s four-and-a-half years as prime minister, suggesting they were a pair of veteran leaders who understood what was necessary and right in a dangerous world, and what was lawful and successful in keeping U.S. and British citizens safe.

“I think one of the things that I've learned over the last six years is that there's always more that we can do. We can always do it better. We learn from mistakes,” Obama said. “Each incident that occurs teaches our professionals how we might be able to prevent these the next time. I'm confident that the very strong cooperation that already exists with Europe will get that much better in the months and years to come.”

The United States enjoys an advantage over countries that struggle with Muslims’ feelings of cultural and economic isolation, the president added, because America’s melting pot of cultures, ethnic groups and religions, including Islam, engenders a shared allegiance to country.

“Our biggest advantage is that our Muslim populations feel themselves to be Americans,” he said. “And there is this incredible process of immigration and assimilation that is part of our tradition, [and] that is probably our greatest strength.

Cameron said Great Britain’s policies are designed to support a multiracial, multi-ethnic society and combat unemployment and poverty, but he said even with the advantages of education or economic opportunities, some people fall prey to evil influencers.

“We’ve seen in recent weeks people who’ve gone to fight in Syria and who may threaten us here, back at home, who had every opportunity and every advantage in life, in terms of integration,” the prime minister said. “So, let’s never lose sight of the real enemy here, which is the poisonous narrative that’s perverting Islam.”

Cameron arrived in Washington determined to press Obama to expand government access to data from U.S. Internet companies, whose social media portals serve as billboards and cloak the Internet’s shadowy through-ways for terrorist recruiters and plotters. The prime minister had suggested before his arrival that he would consider banning some U.S. messaging services if intelligence agencies could not intercept certain communications.

The two leaders on Friday issued a cybersecurity statement of cooperation in which they agreed to “deepen” threat information sharing and ramp up joint cyber-defense exercises, focused initially on the financial sector during 2015.

The two countries in their statement vowed to “work with industry” to reach data accommodations. Obama, referencing the public uproar about National Security Agency spying in the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaked disclosures, trod lightly when discussing privacy and civil liberties as weighed against competing demands to track terrorists online.

He suggested U.S. government discussions with Internet companies about access to private communications in the wake of Cameron’s complaints would be collaborative rather than punitive. He said he was confident Internet companies desired to be helpful to intelligence and law enforcement agencies to prevent terror attacks, but he said “technical issues” were thorny.

Responding to customer demands, some digital innovators are moving quickly to create and market devices and services that can be encrypted beyond the reach of government spies, sleuths, hackers and intelligence trackers. Obama called these technological advances “a problem” for governments when suspected terrorists and their plots can be identified, and yet their conversations and intentions are out of reach.

“How to square the circle on these issues is difficult,” the president said.

Cameron denied he sought “back doors” to private data and communications held by U.S. companies.

“We believe in very clear front doors through legal processes that should help to keep our country safe,” he said. “And my only argument is that as technology develops, as the world moves on, we should try to avoid the safe havens that could otherwise be created for terrorists to talk to each other.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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