President Barack Obama has won certain approval for the deal with Iran that will supposedly contain their nuclear weapons program for the next fifteen years. Or rather, the President has won the non-rejection of the deal by Congress. Actually, that’s still not quite accurate: Obama has guaranteed that he can veto an expected rejection by Congress and avoid a veto override.
This is what passes for victory in Washington these days.
Ever since the negotiating nations announced an agreement on a deal that would lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for restrictions on their nuclear program, including inspections to verify compliance, the American public has reacted with increasing pessimism. Before the announcement of the deal, the electorate favored its pursuit by a wide margin--in principle. With this specific deal, though, voters overwhelmingly want Congress to reject it. A Quinnipiac poll this week shows only 25 percent in favor of the deal, and a majority of 55 percent opposing it. There are literally no demographics with a majority in favor of the deal, not even Democrats, where support only comes to a plurality, 46/25.
Normally, a policy with this kind of negative consensus would be rejected by Congress. That should be especially true of treaties, which require two-thirds of the Senate to ratify. However, thanks to machinations by both the Obama administration and Congress, it now takes a two-thirds vote in both chambers to reject the deal.
Earlier this year, as the prospects for an agreement with Iran appeared to brighten, the White House made it clear that it would not submit the deal to Congress as a treaty. Instead, they would consider it an executive agreement and use whatever authority they had to ensure US compliance with its terms. Most of the sanctions against Iran were passed by Congress as statutes and would require repeal, but they also include an unlimited ability for presidents to waive them for diplomatic purposes. The rest of the terms could be met by executive orders.
Congress tried countering that strategy by threatening to repeal the waivers. This eventually evolved into a bill authored by Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), both opponents of a deal, in which the entire Congress could invalidate the waivers by rejecting the deal. The catch: Obama could veto such a bill, which then requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers to override.
Essentially, the White House has reversed the normal check on treaties and foreign engagements –- and did so with Congressional cooperation. That means that Obama only needed 34 Senators to endorse the deal in order to ensure Congress could not sustain a rejection. On Wednesday, Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski made it official by announcing her support.
That doesn’t mean that Congress still won’t reject the deal, but it does ensure that a rejection will be meaningless. For better or worse, the US will commit to the deal with Iran, regardless of the questions being raised over the inspections, the use Iran will make of the $140 billion in assets it can now access, and the status of four Americans held in Tehran facing dubious charges.
Obama and Kerry have won in the short term, but will expose themselves and their party to long-term political danger. The constitutional requirement for a two-thirds supermajority on treaty ratification exists to ensure that the US does not enter into foreign arrangements without a broad consensus to do so. That also has the practical effect of spreading political risk on a bipartisan basis. When things go wrong, both parties share the damage.
On this deal, there is no doubt that later events will call the pressure to sign a deal into serious question, even if Tehran never produces a nuclear weapon. Iran refuses to give up its support for terrorism, for instance, and claims to have no restrictions on arms. When its proxies are infused with billions of dollars in cash for terror operations and that results in terror attacks – in Gaza by Hamas, for instance, or in Yemen by the Houthis or in Jordan and Lebanon by Hezbollah – the funding for those terror operations will be presumed to have come from the lifting of sanctions on frozen Iranian assets. Increased oppression of Iranians by the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will also result from access to more funds plus the increase in economic activity made possible by the lifting of other sanctions, making it less likely that the Iranian people can liberate themselves.
Furthermore, few will put much faith into the idea that Iran will cease its pursuit of nuclear weapons. This deal will force Sunni nations in the region to seek their own nuclear deterrent, and Saudi Arabia has already hinted that they will seek such weapons from Pakistan. That will start a nuclear arms race that can quickly escalate into a war, and into increased proxy-terrorist activity on the part of Iran to keep its edge in the region.
Those are all of the likely outcomes of a deal that releases Iran from its economic and diplomatic containment of the past 36 years. The only potential positive outcome – stopping a nuclear weapon – will last a mere 15 years at best, according to this agreement. Most don’t believe this agreement will actually stop Iran from gaining nuclear weapons status, perhaps informed by North Korea’s defiance of a similar agreement two decades ago.
Obama wanted an agreement for his “legacy,” and he’ll be out of office in sixteen months no matter what. John Kerry appears ready to go into retirement. But other Democrats who want to stick around will spend the next several years having to re-explain every time Iran’s theocrats act out why they allowed Obama to shove a bad agreement down the throats of Americans opposed to the deal – and it may be a long time before voters trust Democrats with foreign policy and national security again.
On this deal, though, Mikulski’s announcement means that it’s all over but the shouting. Democrats had better hope that’s all that happens.