Why Obama’s Iran Deal Could Die in Congress
Policy + Politics

Why Obama’s Iran Deal Could Die in Congress

In his powerful speech to a joint meeting of Congress yesterday. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his case against a deal with Iran that allows the Islamic Republic to retain the capacity to enrich uranium. The regime in Tehran can’t be trusted, he said, and proposals being floated to sunset restrictions on its nuclear program in 10 years will “pave the road” toward an eventual nuclear bomb.

Netanyahu took great pains at the beginning of his speech to say that he had no desire to turn the issue of nuclear negotiations with Iran into a political or partisan fight in the U.S. But within hours, his speech had done just that. While Congressional Democrats, particularly House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, called the Prime Minister’s barely veiled criticism of the Obama administration “insulting,” Republicans hailed them as heroic, and immediately began calling for stronger action against Iran.

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“Congress should pass additional sanctions on Iran as soon as possible,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who is considering a run for president in 2016.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, not long after Netanyahu’s remarks, said that he would press the Senate to quickly pass legislation that would give Congress the ability to review and block any Iran deal its members don’t like.

Now, some in the arms control community are worried that the tough talk coming out of Washington could poison a deal before it is even struck.

“I would say asking the Congress to initiate new sanctions now…makes it more difficult to convince the Iranian side to make the concessions they need to get to yes,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based non-partisan advocate for reducing the spread of nuclear weapons.

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“Moves like this will cause the Iranians, understandably, to doubt the ability of U.S. negotiators to follow up on their commitments,” Kimball said. “They will be asking themselves if the real intent of Congress is to pass new legislation with the purpose of regime change, or to encourage Iran to accept reasonable limits on its nuclear program.”

Kimball said that if the talks fail, threats from the U.S. Congress give Iran a “Get out of Jail Free” card. “They could argue to the international community that the U.S. blew up the possibility of a good deal,” he said.

But Robert Einhorn, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who participated in the Iran talk as a Department of State special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control from 2009 to 2013, was not quite as pessimistic.

“I think the Iranians are quite sophisticated and follow developments in the U.S. domestically and on Capitol Hill,” he said. “I think they recognize a number of things. The president has various options open to him dealing with Congressional opposition. In particular if some of this legislation is voted and passed, the president has the ability to veto that legislation. I think the chances of his sustaining that veto has increased over the last several weeks, in part because of the Netanyahu visit. While the speech was enthusiastically supported by Republicans, it rubbed many Democrats the wrong way.”

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Einhorn said that the Iranian negotiators are well aware of the uncertainty of the future of any deal, given the vagaries of American politics; while they are concerned about it, they have little choice but to accept it.

He predicted that if a deal is reached, its long-term viability may depend less on which party controls the White House and Congress and more on the simple question of whether it is working or not.

“The durability of the deal, the acceptability of the deal by both parties, will depend on performance,” he said. “If, after a few years, the deal seems to be working well, then I think there will be a greater readiness to simply go along with the deal rather than to kick it over. I think that could even be the case with a Republican president. If there are concerns about Iranian compliance even a Democrat in the White House will have second thoughts about continuing it.”

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