Will the new Senate really ‘kill’ an agreement with Iran?

November 10, 2014

As negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program reach their peak this week – with the November 24 deadline getting closer – the political situation in the US is much different from that of a week and a half ago. This raises the obvious question: does a new, Republican and more combative, Senate impact negotiations and a future agreement with Iran? On Friday evening, attending the Israeli American Council’s inaugural national conference at the Washington Hilton, I heard former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney hitting President Obama hard for his reported letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The President, Romney said, “continues to diminish himself and America, these acts of his that unfortunately lead bad people to assume that American can be pushed around and I find it very unfortunate”.

Whether one agrees with Romney or not, his harsh criticism is typical of the new Senate majority. In meetings I had in Washington last week I asked several policy makers how many Republican Senators they expect would vote for strengthening the sanctions against Iran, if such a proposal is back on the table. The estimation runs from 52 Senators (leaving the two opposing Senators from the last round out), to 53 (including Senator Rand Paul in the majority vote). They also estimated that 10-15 Democratic Senators could vote for more sanctions even if the Obama administration opposes such a move. “Would there be a veto-proof majority? That’s hard to tell”, one of them told me. “But it is not impossible”.

Imagine – he said – what happens if Hillary Clinton publically says that the time has come for stronger sanctions. “All of a sudden, we could see how the Democratic minority in the Senate moves to associate itself with the next prospective President rather than with the current President”.

Clinton supporter and philanthropist Haim Saban said Sunday morning in Washington that more sanctions are needed: “we’ve shown too many carrots and a small stick”. This should not surprise all those who have been following the thinking in the Clinton camp about Iran. Consider the view on Iran Hillary Clinton expressed not long ago: “I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment. Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right. I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran. The preference would be no enrichment. The potential fallback position would be such little enrichment that they could not break out. So, little or no enrichment has always been my position”.

Clinton’s position, reasonably, depends on the details of the agreement, or lack thereof. And activity in the Senate also depends on what the administration is able to accomplish in the next two weeks until the deadline. Two things are going to happen, though, regardless of the outcome, and these things are already in the making:

One – the warnings from proponents of the sanctions bill (the legislation was shelved at the beginning of the year due to administration pressure) will increase in number and will become more severe in tone as we get closer to the deadline (a source close to a senior Republican Senator told me: “a bad agreement with Iran would be the ultimate proof of Obama’s incompetence as a world leader”). We’ve seen it with Romney from the Republican side, and with Senator Lyndsey Graham, at the same event, promising to “kill” a “bad deal” with Iran. But we’ve heard a similar message – if a little more polite in tone – from Democratic Senator Menendez, one of the two sponsors of the shelved bill (along with Senator Kirk).

Two – it will not be just rhetoric, it will also be action. On January, Graham promised, the time for talk will be over, and the time for voting will begin. Graham would like to reassert the role and the centrality of Congress in the process of negotiations with Iran by passing a bill that makes it mandatory for the administration to put any agreement to an “up or down” vote in Congress. Senators would also like to redraw for the administration the lines beyond which an agreement does not pass the “laugh test”, as one Washington insider defined it.

Of course, the administration might not accept the “lines” and the “demands” of a new Congress. It can decide to wave the sanctions away unilaterally. But it has a problem: it cannot remove them from the books – only Congress can do that. “Believe me, the Iranians know this and would want to make sure that they do not sign an agreement and then are hit back with sanctions as soon as Obama leaves office”, an aid to a senior legislator told me. Trita Parsi wrote similarly in Foreign Affairs: “Absent a permanent lifting of the relevant U.S. sanctions on Iran – which would require an act of Congress – the agreement would never hold”.

So the new Republican majority could probably damage or kill an agreement. The question, of course, is if it wants to. What happens after the speeches are made and the letters are signed and sent? Three different scenarios can be drawn – depending on what happens in negotiations:

1. No agreement, no talks

That's the easy one. If talks fail to provide for any agreement and break down, the way for a new round of sanctions will be cleared. On Sunday, Obama warned that a deal might not be possible. So maybe in a short while the administration itself would support a new round to put more pressure on Iran. A handful of Republicans (one or two) and Democratic leftists (as many as 10) could still oppose the new legislation, but it would pass with flying colors. Republicans would, of course, still use the occasion to sting the administration (and the Democratic Party) for not letting the legislation pass long ago.

2. No agreement, extension of talks

Things become more complicated in such a case. But we can expect Congress to act in one of a few ways if the administration agrees to keep talking. It can move very quickly, with the support of the current Democratic leadership – a leadership that has diminishing political reasons to be attentive to the concerns of the Obama administration – to pass the Kirk-Menendez bill. Or it can pass it with an activation mechanism that puts the sanctions to work as soon as the next deadline expires (unless there is an agreement good enough for the Senate to reconsider the bill). Or it can wait with it for the Republican majority and then pass it in one of the two above-mentioned forms.

The Obama administration would need to make a decision at some point on whether it wants to engage Congress in the hope that it can have impact on the language of the legislation – or it can decide not to engage a Republican majority on this issue and rely on the veto power of the president and on his ability to waive the sanctions.

3. Agreement

What the Republican majority is going to do if there’s an agreement on the table is hard to foresee without having the full details of the agreement before us. But there are many signs that leaders in Congress, and not just on the Republican side, could not be easily impressed by any agreement that the Obama administration is likely to provide. If they are not impressed, they’ll want to clarify their position and they’ll want to try to sabotage the agreement. That is, unless the administration is able to A. provide them with assurances that the agreement is really a “good” agreement – one that truly puts a stop to Iran’s military nuclear program, or B. convince the majority of the public that the agreement is good – and put the pressure on the opponents who would not want to be seen as “war mongers” (public opinion on the issue of Iran can be very confusing).

The administration could also try to ignore Congress or try to circumvent it by using several means. One possibility that was recently mentioned to concerned Israel officials: the Obama administration could turn to the UN to lift the international sanctions on Iran, and by doing so it could also mobilize the business community in the US to put pressure on Congress to lift the American sanctions – so as not to remain the only business community that does not profit from the thaw in relations with Iran. Naturally, Congress is not going to let Obama ignore it in such a way without responding. Maybe such speculation was behind Senator Graham’s implied threat to “cut off” funding to the UN (Graham did not link the threat to Iran – he said he’d cut funding if the UN “keep this Israeli bashing up”).

So here’s what to expect:

No matter what happens: letters and statements that define what “a good agreement” means.

No matter what happens: the drafting of legislation that makes it mandatory to get Congressional approval for a deal (it will pass, but a veto proof majority seems unlikely at this time – possibly later).

If there is no deal or a bad deal: the drafting of legislation that puts more sanctions on Iran (it will pass – but a veto proof majority depends on having no deal or a majority agreeing that the administration presented a bad deal).

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