Obama and Congress Resolve Conflict on Iranian Nuclear Pact
It appears that the Obama Administration has reached a deal that gives Congress a say on the Iranian nuclear deal, while still giving Obama the executive authority granted in the Constitution to negotiate deals with foreign governments.
Unarguably, it has been a hard deal to seal as there is a lame duck administration that is eager for a deal and a Congress that is skeptical of Iranian intentions. To complicate it, although American voters want to restrict Iranian nuclear developments, they are confused about the current deal.
Part of the problem is not the deal itself, but the differing interpretations made by the White House and Iran. This leads to confusion and concerns about Iranian position. The Obama administration said Iran agreed not to operate advanced centrifuges, but the Iranians said they will begin operating them the day after a deal is signed. The Obama administration said sanctions can be reinstituted, but the Iranians said they’ll be gone once and for all the very day the deal is signed. The Obama administration said there will be a strict inspections and verification regime, but the Iranians said there won’t be anytime/anywhere inspections. The Obama administration said that it won concessions on the underground site at Fordow and the heavy-water reactor at Arak (and, indirectly, on the military testing site at Parchin), but the Iranians boasted they’ve given up nothing serious with respect to any of them.
Nor does it help that an opposing analysis published on April 8 in the Wall Street Journal by Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, perhaps the first time in modern American history that two former secretaries of state – and distinguished ones at that – have come out against an agreement negotiated by a president with a foreign country.
But on the other hand there was huge boost to the Obama‘s administration position whena bipartisan group of former senior officials, US ambassadors and military leaders, as well as other national security experts, united to support an extension of negotiations with Iran as serving US national interests, and to encourage Congress to refrain from passing new sanctions now. Also it was a big relief to the administration to see a group of 30 leading nuclear nonproliferation specialists, primarily from the United States, issued a joint statement assessing the framework deal announced by the P5+1 and Iran on April 2 as a “vitally important step forward” for nonproliferation and international security.
“When implemented, it will put in place an effective, verifiable, enforceable, long-term plan to guard against the possibility of a new nuclear-armed state in the Middle East,” the statement reads.
In their statement, the signatories, who include former U.S. nuclear negotiators and leading nuclear specialists, “…urge the P5+1 and Iranian negotiators to promptly finalize the remaining technical details and we urge policy makers in key capitals to support the deal and the steps necessary to ensure timely implementation and rigorous compliance with the agreement.
Although frequently framed in terms of the constitutional rights of the Congress and the presidency in terms of negotiating international agreements, the deal was primarily a political solution.
Obama was clearly facing a problem as enough Democrats threatened to desert Obama in his attempt to circumvented Congress. The other problem was that any deal made by him, that didn’t have any congressional input could be revoked as soon as a new president came to office.
Obama also faced another political problem – the changing political chemistry in the Democratic caucus in the Senate. Obama’s major ally in the US Senate, Senator Harry Reid, is quickly losing influence do to his failing health and lame duck status.
Meanwhile, Reid’s probable successor as Senate Democratic leader, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York is growing in influence as Senate Democrats realize that he will be the leading Senate Democrat in just 20 months.
Schumer is one of the most rabidly pro-Israel senators and his growing influence may be noticeable in the upcoming Iranian nuclear deal debates. As a major fund raiser, heir to the Senate Democratic leadership position, and the one to hand out coveted Senate committee positions in 2017, other Democratic senators would be hard pressed to oppose Schumer, knowing that he will be in power, when Obama is no longer in the White House.
What the Deal Means Politically
It is said frequently that a good compromise is one where no one is happy. In that case, this is an ideal compromise because no one in the White House or the Congress is pleased. The administration sees the agreement as interference in the executive authority to carry out foreign affairs, while the Senate sees it as trampling on its right to ratify a treaty.
However, what is being done is not without precedence. This Iranian deal falls into what is called congressional–executive agreements, by which some international agreements have been made by the President and approved (either in advance or after the fact) by a simple majority of both houses of Congress, rather than two-thirds of the Senate. Many of these agreements deal particularly with trade-related matters, which Congress has clear constitutional authority to regulate.
Congressional–executive agreements, at least with respect to trade matters, are now well established, and recent court challenges have been unsuccessful (Made in the USA Foundation v. United States, 2001). On the other hand, arguments for “complete interchangeability”—that is, claims that anything that can be done by treaty can be done by congressional–executive agreement do not seem to be constitutional.
Most of the opposition to this deal will come from Republicans. The deal, as passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, requires the president to submit for congressional review the final nuclear agreement reached between Iran, the U.S. and its five negotiating partners. The bill does maintain the prohibition on the president waiving congressionally enacted sanctions against Iran during the review period.
However, the review period in the measure has been shortened from 60 days to an initial 30 days, unless the deal is submitted to Congress between July 10th and September 7th. If, at the end of the 30 days, Congress were to pass a bill on sanctions relief and send it to the president, an additional 12 days would be automatically added to the review period. There could be another 10 days of review if the president vetoed the resulting sanctions bill.
What Republicans don’t like is that the deal in effect lowers the threshold for approving the Iran deal from 67 votes (which would be required by a full blown treaty submitted to the Senate) to 34 votes. Everyone is aware that 67 votes is a goal that Obama couldn’t reach.
As the editors of The Wall Street Journal noted, “The majority could offer a resolution of disapproval, but that could be filibustered by Democrats and vetoed by the President. As few as 41 Senate Democrats could thus vote to prevent it from ever getting to President Obama’s desk—and 34 could sustain a veto. Mr. Obama could then declare that Congress had its say and ‘approved’ the Iran deal even if a majority in the House and Senate voted to oppose it.”
While this appears to be a win for Obama and his approach to the Iranian negotiations, it does give agreement opponents something. Since many politicians saw a near veto proof majority in both in the Senate and House if the deal was bad, Obama has been put on notice that not just any deal will get final approval.
The other aspect that didn’t please the White House is that once the agreement is signed by the White House, all of the details, including secret annexes, must be made available to Congress. This was something that Obama had refused to do previously.
The release of all related materials and secret annexes could be critical as the Obama Administration has been reticent about giving Congress secret materials in the past. The 30 day timeframe in the agreement does not start until all the documentation has been delivered. If the White House doesn’t pass on some documentation within the five days specified, the Congress could take longer to review the deal. And, if Obama decides to move ahead without giving Congress all the documentation, the courts will likely rule that the deal is illegal.
The agreement also states that even if Congress can’t overrule Obama on the Iranian nuclear deal, the sanctions legislation remains in place, which means that a future president can revoke the agreement and re-impose sanctions. It also states, “Sanctions on Iran for terrorism, human rights abuses, and ballistic missiles will remain in place under an agreement.”
The deal can also be modified by Congress; something that is quite likely if a majority of congressmen opposes the deal. Some modifications could be made to the deal, as signed, in order to garner enough Democratic votes to override an Obama veto.
Some clauses that might be added to the deal by Congress (and would likely cause Iran to pull out of the agreement) are: closing of the underground site at Fordow, anywhere/anytime inspections of Iranian nuclear facitities, sanctions that remain for at least the first couple of years, cessation of support for terror, and recognition of Israel.
Needless to say, the intervention by the US Congress gives Iran’s leadership an excuse to send it to their parliament, where it will also face criticism.
According to CNN security reporter Elise Labott, Iran’s parliament is also making revisions to the arrangement that American negotiators are probably going to find unacceptable. In fact, Iran’s parliamentary nuclear committee has already revised the deal and insisted on doubling centrifuges and cutting time of deal in half
The Iranian Parliament’s nuclear committee insists on, “operation of 10,000 centrifuge machines at Natanz and Fordo, a maximum 5-year-long duration for the deal and Iran’s nuclear limitations, replacement of the current centrifuges with the latest generation of home-made centrifuge machines at the end of the five-year period,” read an Iranian statement published by the Iranian Fars News Agency.
“The text of the factsheet which was presented by Head of the Nuclear Committee Ebrahim Karkhaneyee on Wednesday includes the necessity for respecting the redlines and guidelines specified by Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, the reversible nature of Iran’s decisions in case of the other side’s non-commitment to its undertakings and the annulment of all sanctions together immediately after the first day of implementation of the final agreement.”
Needless to say, if these objections are included, the deal will face overwhelming rejection by the US Congress.
Will an Agreement Pass?
Clearly, the debate is not over. Although Obama has cleared some political roadblocks with this agreement, he is not home free. Congress and the voters are skeptical of what has been released so far and undoubtedly some of the information that must be released to Congress will only fuel the opposition to the agreement.
While Obama can finalize the deal if a mere 34 Democratic senators support any veto, politicians who have counted votes in the Senate agree that Obama may find it hard to garner 34 votes if the deal is fundamentally flawed. This is especially true as the power of pro-Israel Senator Schumer grows as the power of the frail Senator Reid shrinks.
Undoubtedly, Republican congressmen will try to add clauses that are popular with voters and will force Democratic congressmen to make hard decisions of whether to support Obama or to placate skeptical voters at home. These clauses, in turn will be sure to upset the Iranians and probably scuttle the deal.
There is another factor to consider – the upcoming US presidential election and the 2016 congressional elections. If the deal is submitted to Congress in early September, there remains a 60 day period before Obama can take action in lifting the sanctions. That takes the debate up til the holiday period near the end of the year and the beginning of 2016.
There are already 4 presidential candidates running and more are to be expected by the time the deal is supposed to be ironed out and Congress starts debating the deal. It is quite possible that all of the candidates (including Hillary Clinton) will be denouncing the deal – along with candidates opposing congressional incumbents. How many incumbent congressmen will be willing to support a fading lame duck Obama by risking their seat? Probably few.
Although there is now a roadmap for sealing a deal with the Iranians, the trip to the finish line is still a long one with many roadblocks on the way. Don’t be surprised if Obama and Kerry don’t make it to the end.
Russia, Iran, and the S-300 Air Defense System
By Paul N. Schwartz
Center for Strategic and International Studies
April 14, 2015
According to news reports, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree yesterday lifting the ban on export and delivery of S-300 air defense systems to Iran. The decree essentially eliminates restrictions that have been in place since 2010, when Russia cancelled a contract to sell such systems to Iran, citing the desire to support the international sanctions regime against Iran’s nuclear program. By eliminating such restrictions, the decree paves the way for future sales of the S-300, although the two states would presumably still have to reach agreement on a new contract. Nor would the sale of those systems violate the international sanctions regime against Iran, since Russia specifically negotiated an exception to that regime permitting the sale of ground-to-air missiles to Iran. U.S. State Department spokesperson Wendy Harf has acknowledged as much.
What does Iran really want in Yemen?
By J. Matthew McInnis
American Enterprise Institute
April 14, 2015
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and other senior leaders loudly condemned Riyadh’s ongoing Operation Decisive Storm against the al Houthi rebels last week, and the shape of Iran’s counter-narrative is now emerging. Today Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif announced a peace plan calling for a ceasefire and dialogue. But what does Iran really want? Here are five key components of Tehran’s strategy in Yemen: Unravel the Sunni coalition. The participation of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan in Operation Decisive Storm—with US backing and rhetorical support from Turkey and Pakistan—was a diplomatic victory for Saudi Arabia. New lines were drawn for spheres of influence in the region, and not to Tehran‘s favor. A clearly rattled Iranian leadership has been working to undo the damage, first by helping convince Pakistan and Turkey to withhold military support to the Saudi effort. Iran will attempt to further undermine the Saudi coalition, likely poking at long-standing fractures among the Arab states.
The Geopolitics of the Nuclear Negotiations with Iran
By Brandon Friedman
Foreign Policy Research Institute
In a provocative sliver of a book, The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East, which was published before the “Arab Spring” upheavals, French scholar Olivier Ròy argues that three “traumas” mark the contemporary history of the Arab Middle East between Suez and Iran. The first trauma was the European-designed post-World War I state system that ended Sharif Husayn’s vision of one independent Arab-Muslim kingdom from Arabia to the western border of Iran. The second trauma was the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, and the repeated defeats suffered at its hands. The third trauma, Ròy argues, is still unfolding and is the destruction of Sunni Arab political supremacy east of Suez. Ròy argues that this trauma took place in two stages: the first stage was the 1978-1979 Iranian Revolution, which resulted in the establishment of the revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran. The second stage were the chain of events set in motion by 2003 U.S.- led invasion of Iraq, which led to Shi‘i domination of the Iraqi state. The Iranian nuclear negotiation should be viewed in the context of this third trauma. The world justifiably sees the Iranian nuclear negotiations in the global context of upholding nuclear non-proliferation and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, which surely it is. But in the Middle East, the nuclear negotiations are viewed as being inextricably linked to the broader struggle for the legitimate stewardship of the region, as well as to the regional balance of power.
Kurdish Peace Process: From Optimism to Uncertainty and What’s Next?
By Galip Dalay
German Marshall Fund
April 14, 2015
Turkey and Kurdish politicians are too far committed to the Kurdish peace process to easily backtrack on it. Strategic calculations account for the continuation of the process on both sides. The fact that the process has overcome many challenges illustrates its resilience and the resoluteness of the parties. Nevertheless, there are still a number of factors that have the potential either to terminate or delay it. Regional developments, the electoral performance of the pro-Kurdish HDP, the overall election atmosphere and parties’ calculations about it, and divergent conceptualizations of the place of the process in the debate on a new constitution and political system are the main potential spoiling factors. Successful completion of the process necessitates the actors involved work toward overcoming these factors.
Remember the Carter Doctrine
By Max Boot and Michael Doran
April 10, 2015
The ouster of ISIS fighters from Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, has been widely celebrated. Although this victory was brought about in no small part by American airpower, it was a triumph for Iran more than for the United States. The vast majority of fighters on the front lines belonged to Shiite militias, many of them trained, equipped, and advised by the Iranians. Their de facto commander is Gen. Qassem Suleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Quds Force, which is charged with exporting the Iranian revolution. He has become a seemingly ubiquitous presence on the front lines, his appearances celebrated through a clever Iranian social media campaign. Iranian T-72 tanks and even Fajr-5 artillery rockets and Fateh-110 missiles are now appearing in Iraq as well.
Lebanon Continues to Muddle Through
By David Schenker
April 13, 2015
Washington’s efforts to increase security assistance are helpful, but Lebanon will remain a priority target for ISIS and other Sunni terrorist groups so long as Hezbollah continues fighting for the Assad regime in Syria. On March 31, Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam was in Kuwait attending a UN humanitarian relief conference for Syria, seeking a billion dollars in assistance to defray Beirut’s costs for hosting more than a million Syrian refugees. A week earlier, Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk visited Washington in search of additional U.S. funding to help the Internal Security Forces (ISF) better contend with the threat posed by the “Islamic State”/ISIS and other Sunni militant groups. Taken together, these tin-cup missions highlight the ongoing challenge to Lebanon’s stability as the war in Syria enters its fifth year. Meanwhile, it is unclear whether and how the recently announced nuclear framework with Iran will affect the tenuous calm in Beirut.