How horse-trading on Capitol Hill threatens President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran

We now have a situation where a Republican Congress will be able to stick its oar in at the very moment almost a decade of negotiations finally bears fruit

David Usborne
Thursday 16 April 2015 09:47
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If you belong to the camp that believes that a negotiated deal with Iran offers the best hope of stopping it developing an atom bomb, at least for a while, the news that President Barack Obama has agreed to sign a law that would give the US Congress the right of approval may cause you to break out in hives.

Mr Obama is by no means the first US President who has sought to use his executive powers to go around Congress to reach important foreign policy pacts. The more fraught an undertaking it is, the more important it is to have that free hand. And heaven knows this Iran thing is fraught.

Now his position – and that of the US Secretary of State, John Kerry – has been weakened. Among all the nations involved in this process – the other members of the so-called P5-plus one are Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany – the US is alone in having to admit that it will not be in a position to automatically deliver on whatever might eventually be agreed in June.

The British Prime Minister, whoever that will be after May's election, will inform Parliament. Mr Obama will go to Congress to beg.

Members of Congress argue that, because it is the body that passed many of the US economic sanctions that helped bring Iran to the table, it should have some input into any process that results in their being lifted, which of course is what Iran is demanding in return for restricting its nuclear programmes. President Hassan Rouhani said: “If there is no end to sanctions, there will not be an agreement.”

There has been a pattern of recklessness here. In an act of outright disrespect for President Obama, a group of 47 Republican senators wrote a letter to the Iranian leadership last month saying any deal they did with US might quickly crumble, particularly once Mr Obama vacates the Oval Office. Fortunately, Tehran took the letter for what it was – a partisan attempt to cut Mr Obama off at the knees – and ignored it.

Perhaps they shouldn’t have, because we now have a situation where Congress, which is under Republican control, will have its chance to stick its oar in at the very moment almost a decade of negotiations finally bears fruit, assuming it does.

It isn’t encouraging to listen to the House Speaker John Boehner on the subject. “I don’t know how you cut a deal with the devil and think the devil is going to keep his end of the deal,” he said this week, borrowing from Iran’s own satanic rhetorical lexicon. The White House backed off from vowing to veto the oversight law when a draft version sailed through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and it became clear that, were Mr Obama to veto it, that veto might easily be overridden. Additionally, some of the more aggressive provisions originally envisioned for the bill had been removed on the urging of administration officials, making it significantly more palatable.

Assuming new amendments aren’t attached, the law will prevent Mr Obama from lifting any Iran sanctions for 30 days while Congress considers whether to support or reject the nuclear agreement. If it chooses to reject it – and don’t underestimate the push Israel will make at that moment to persuade members to do just that – Mr Obama will then have 12 days to veto that measure. At that point he would rely on Democrats to side with him to ensure that his veto could not then be overridden.

At the Group of Seven foreign ministers meeting in Lübeck, Germany, both Mr Kerry and his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, voiced the view that in the end Congress will behave, never mind its record so far.

“The view is that, if you reach an agreement on the basis of the framework, then that is a position that you can push through Congress,” Mr Steinmeier said.

So that, indeed, is the million-dollar question. Does this accommodation with Congress that has essentially been forced on the White House seriously imperil any final deal with Iran or not?

Not, says Matt Duss, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace here. “I think the President can definitely live with this. Congress has a legitimate role to play here. The question is if Congress is going to play this role are they going to play it in a responsible fashion?”

It’s his hunch that at the end of the day, accepting a deal that might help avoid a new conflagration in the region might trump the desire of most Republicans to deny Mr Obama what could turn out to be the biggest prize of his presidency.

It’s a view echoed by Dylan Williams, a vice president of J Street, the Washington group that identifies itself as pro-Israel and pro-peace and has been a supporter of the process with Iran.

“We welcome the compromise,” he said, noting that were Congress to reject an Iran deal Mr Obama should easily be able to muster the minimum 34 members of the Senate he’d need to prevent an override of his veto. If so, the deal would live, not die.

Some additional patience from Iran will be required here. The admission of Congress into the process means that US sanctions will not be lifted upon signature of a deal. But if they can wait an extra month or two for Mr Obama to go through some brief niceties of democracy, all may yet be well. Let’s hope.

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