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Power Takes Obama's Iran Case to Kentucky

Power is the first Cabinet member to appear with McConnell since he became majority leader. (Tom Fougerousse/University of Louisville)

America's top diplomat at the United Nations took the Obama administration's case against enhancing Iran sanctions to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's home turf Monday — delivering remarks that sounded like a State of the Union prelude.  

Ambassador Samantha Power reiterated the administration's view that "increasing sanctions would dramatically undermine our efforts" to halt nuclear weapons development by the Iranians in talks, which have been extended through June.  

"First, imposing new sanctions now will almost certainly end a negotiations process that has not only frozen the advance of Iran's nuclear program, but that could lead us to an understanding that would give us confidence in its exclusively peaceful nature. If new sanctions were imposed, Iran would be able to blame the U.S. for sabotaging the negotiations and causing the collapse of the process, and we would lose the chance to peacefully resolve a major national security challenge," Power said. "Second, ... new sanctions will actually likely weaken the sanctions pressure on Iran, by undermining crucial international support for the existing multilateral sanctions on Iran."  

Power's comments about Iran came when McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, was just steps away. They were part of a wide-ranging foreign policy address sponsored by his namesake McConnell Center on the University of Louisville campus. The Senate majority leader has said bringing additional conditional sanctions against Iran to the Senate floor for a vote is among his early priorities in 2015.  

Power became the first Cabinet member to make a public appearance with McConnell since his elevation to majority leader earlier in January.  

"Amidst all of this apparent rancor and partisanship, you in the audience might be a bit surprised to see a member of President [Barack] Obama's cabinet — and the ambassador to the United Nations, no less — down here in Kentucky at the invitation of the new Republican Senate majority leader," Power said. "You might wonder whether I'm here to pick a fight or walk into an ambush."  

Much of the speech focused not on Capitol Hill partisan battles, but on areas where the two parties have found common ground, from the response to the outbreak of Ebola in Africa to U.S. efforts to support pro-democracy efforts in Myanmar, formerly Burma.  

McConnell has long made the situation in Myanmar a priority, and Power praised his work with California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein on sanctions against the repressive military junta that contributed to the country opening up and moving in a pro-democratic direction. But, the progress has been at times tepid.  

"That is the challenge we face today: ensuring that Burma builds on the areas in which it has made progress, and avoids backsliding. And we have to be prepared to adapt our strategy to the conditions we observe, including setbacks. We — and when I say we, I am confident Leader McConnell shares this view — we have to examine every tool in our toolkit and ask: How can we take steps that may contribute to empowering the Burmese people and helping the country move towards genuine democratic reform?" Power said. "Our tools include incentivizing continued progress, shining a bright light on the government’s shortcomings, and imposing targeted sanctions on individuals who stand in the way of change."  

In addition to discussing democratic development in Myanmar, Power acknowledged differences of opinion about the Obama administration's engagement with Cuba.  

"Some of the embargo's staunchest defenders are Democrats and Republicans with deep ties to the island — people whose families came to America fleeing the Castros' repression. These are men and women who are completely dedicated to doing all they can to ensure that Cubans on the island get to enjoy true freedom. So it is important to acknowledge that while there may be disagreements on the best way to get there, we share a common goal of advancing the rights of the Cuban people," Power said.  

She reiterated the administration's view that after decades of the embargo against Cuba failing to bring about the desired outcome, it was time to change the strategy.  

"The changes President Obama announced take away the Castros' most trusted alibi for abuse, helping empower the Cuban people to secure the greater freedoms they want and deserve," she said. "The change in policy also denies repressive governments in the region the ability to continue cynically to use our Cuba policy to deflect attention from their own abuses, such as Ecuador's crackdown on the press, or Venezuela's imprisonment of key opposition leaders."  

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