Jackson, Pence lead effort to tell Obama to act immediately on Iran

Frustrated lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are intensifying their push on President Barack Obama to impose "crippling" sanctions on Iran.

A letter signed by seemingly unlikely allies -- Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and Mike Pence (R-Ind.) -- is being recirculated and rapidly gathering support.

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With the decidedly partisan healthcare bill barely out of the way, lawmakers are swiftly jumping on board the very bipartisan effort to urge Obama to get tougher on Iran.

"Iran's nuclear weapons program represents a severe threat to American national interests... It has now stored enough low enriched uranium to serve as the core for two nuclear weapons," the letter states.

"Mr. President, you have stated this issue is a priority for your administration. You have attempted to engage the Iranian regime for over a year. You have gone to the United Nations Security Council in an effort to impose tough new sanctions on Iran. But time is not on our side," the letter continues.

"We cannot allow those who would oppose or delay sanctions to govern either the timing or content of our efforts," it says, in reference to the lack of support at the Security Council by veto-wielders China and Russia.

The letter calls on Obama to "fulfill your June 2008 pledge that you would do 'everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.' Certainly, one way to begin would be to reverse the practice under which the U.S. government has awarded at least $107 billion over the past decade in federal contracts to companies investing in or doing business in Iran."

Jackson and Pence further urge the president to "rapidly" implement the sanctions legislation when it comes out of conference and use whatever presidential powers at his means to impose "punishing measures" on Tehran.

In December, the House approved 412-12 a measure enabling Obama to ban foreign firms that supply Iran with refined petroleum from doing business in the U.S. The Senate passed its own version of sanctions targeting Iran's energy sector by voice vote on Jan. 28.

"The hour is late," the lawmakers write. "Now is the time for action."

As of 5 p.m. Friday, 76 Democrats and 138 Republicans had joined Jackson and Pence by signing on to the letter.

House Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and James Clyburn (D-S.C.) are not among the signatories, but House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) have added their names to the effort.

House GOP leader John Boehner (Ohio) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) are among the Republican co-signers.

"The letter to the president is receiving strong support from our colleagues on both sides of the aisle," Jackson told The Hill. "The broad, bipartisan backing reflects a clear-eyed, rock-ribbed commitment in Congress to do what is necessary now to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons capability and becoming a more dangerous, destabilizing and destructive force in the world."

A similar effort to urge Obama to act now against Iran is happening in the Senate, pushed by Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). Both spoke at the gala dinner of the American Israel Public Affairs Council on Monday, where Schumer said the letter was being delivered to the president within the week.

In his speech, Schumer questioned the logic of calling Tehran's boasts and threats "saber rattling" when Iran was openly pursing its nuclear program.

"Diplomatic efforts have clearly failed," Schumer said. "The U.S. must hit Iran first on our own with unilateral sanctions." That means Obama putting "sanctions into effect immediately" when the bill emerges from conference and lands on the president's desk, he added.

"My belief is a military strike stopping the Iranian government from having a nuclear weapon is more effective than trying to deal with the Iranian government after they have one," Graham said. "And if military force is ever employed, it should be done in a decisive fashion. The Iranian government's ability to wage conventional warfare against its neighbors and our troops in the region should not exist."

White House adviser Valerie Jarrett said on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday that the administration's strategy on Iran was working and insisted that "Iran will back down."

"I can tell you is what the president has said consistently, which is that we're going to continue to put pressure on Iran," Jarrett said. "...We're going to have a coalition that will really put pressure on Iran and try to stop them from doing what they're trying to do."

On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. was softening proposed sanctions to gain the backing of China and Russia. Jarrett on Sunday hailed the signing of the START treaty as a sign that Russia could also work with the U.S. on reining in Iran.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Saturday "we are convinced that the path of sanctions is not optimal," yet "at the same time, such a scenario cannot be excluded."

Medvedev was addressing the Arab League at its meeting in Libya. The chief of the League of Arab States urged Saturday that Arab nations keep Iran close and engage Tehran in dialogue despite the efforts of Western states to isolate the Islamic Republic.

At the meeting of the Group of Eight foreign ministers beginning Monday in Ottawa, Canada is expected to press the other G8 members -- including Russia -- on moving forward with sanctions.

While some of the attention at the AIPAC conference was directed toward the friction between the White House and Tel Aviv over new construction in East Jerusalem, a common theme was alarm about the rapidly increasing momentum of Iran's nuclear program and perceived foot-dragging by the White House.

"Even now we use the word 'smart sanctions' -- that's a mistranslation that means dumb sanctions," said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who has signed on to the Jackson-Pence letter.

"I don't mind our efforts to negotiate with Iran; I do mind the fact that we haven't already imposed crippling sanctions," Sherman told The Hill at AIPAC on Monday. "The talks go much better if you impose the crippling sanctions first.

"During World War I there were discussions with Austria-Hungary," he added. "But that didn't mean we didn't fight the war."