The Politics of Obama’s Iranian Nuclear Deal
What Does it Mean for 2016 Elections? Will Congress Pass It?
While many are judging Obama’s Iranian nuclear deal in terms of protecting Iran’s neighbors from the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb, there is also the very complex political chemistry of getting the deal past the US Congress. In this case, it’s more than just White House pressure and promises to win enough Democratic support to sustain a veto. There are many more aspects.
The upcoming presidential election is obviously an important factor. It is already assumed that the GOP candidates will oppose it, but will the Democratic candidates? In addition, as a lame duck president, it is clear that Obama doesn’t have the political power he had just a year ago. And, there are the US Senate races – will a Democratic senator, oppose Obama because it will help him win reelection?
The first question is if Congress can stop the deal? At this time, it is certain that a majority of the House and Senate will vote against Obama. In fact, Senate Majority leader, Mitch McConnell, said that over 60 senators would oppose the deal. However, since Obama has promised to veto any resolution opposing the deal, opponents must muster a 2/3 majority in both the House and Senate; a much more daunting obstacle. According to the Washington Post, Obama already has 24 of the 34 necessary votes in the Senate to sustain his veto.
There is still a question about the White House strategy for moving the deal through Congress. One way would be to try to win over Republicans and get clear majorities on board – a move that would help in the general election next year.
The other option, which would be easier, but would not help in 2016, is to solidify the Democratic votes so they would sustain a Obama veto. Although the White House hasn’t made its strategy clear, it appears that it will probably pick the second option – sustain a veto with Democratic votes.
The key to the deal may lie with Senator Schumer, who will likely become the Democratic Senate Leader in 2017 and is known as very pro-Israel. As the future Democratic leader, he has the power to hand out powerful Senate committee leadership posts long after Obama has left the White House, which means that if he strongly opposes it, he can persuade senators that it would be in their best interest to side with him and his post-Obama power rather than side with a lame duck president who will be out of power in a year and a half.
In the end, Obama must convince 34 of his party’s senators that they should side with him. If the Washington Post head count is accurate, he still needs 10 Democratic senators – something that may be hard to garner if Schumer publically opposes him and offers preferred committee assignments in 2017 to senators who back him.
Much will depend on polling in the next few weeks. If the voters are opposed to the deal (which early polls indicate), many may find it more political to vote against the Iranian deal. However, if the voters favor it or are ambivalent, they may find it easier to side with the president. Unlike previous votes, Obama can’t promise them a job in his administration if they lose next year. That, in turn, gives Schumer more influence in determining the outcome.
Another problem is the timeframe in which the deal must be agreed upon by Congress and when it must be submitted to the UN Security Council. The law allows Congress to review the Iran nuclear agreement for 60 days. The 60-day review period mandated by Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, signed by Obama in May, can only begin once the administration submits the full text, along with annexes and related material including assessments on compliance and non-proliferation, to Congress.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee will then hold hearings on the agreement, and Congress may then vote on a joint resolution approving the agreement, or one rejecting it. It may also take no action, although Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) indicated Tuesday that a vote could take place in early September.
However, the Obama administration intends to press ahead with a U.N. Security Council resolution within days.
“We will be introducing a U.N. Security Council resolution perhaps as early as next week,” a senior administration official told reporters in a background conference call from Vienna, hours after the final agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was announced.
In New York, a diplomat at the U.N. told the Associated Press the U.S. will circulate the draft on this week, while back in Vienna, Secretary of State John Kerry said implementation of the agreement with Iran will begin “within 90 days of the U.N. Security Council endorsing the deal.”
Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) expressed concern about what he called a “rush to the U.N.” on the part of the administration.
After chairing a hearing Tuesday on the implications of the nuclear deal, Royce said he discussed the matter in a phone call with Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken. “I urged that the Obama administration not seek action at the U.N. Security Council on the agreement before Congress can review it in detail during the legislatively-mandated congressional review period,” Royce said.
An indication about how important this deal is to Obama is that he dispatched Vice President Biden to Capitol Hill to persuade Democrats to side with him. Needless to say, many have remained skeptical about the terms of a deal with the “rogue regime”. In fact, one of the President’s biggest critics on the Iran issue has been Democrat Senator Bob Menendez (D, NJ), who has already denounced the deal.
“The deal doesn’t end Iran’s nuclear program; it preserves it,” Menendez said this week. “This does not guarantee that Iran will not achieve a nuclear weapon in the future.”
If the Senate doesn’t override Obama’s veto, the Republican leadership has other plans to complicate the implementation of the Iranian deal. One option is to move legislation sponsored by Senator Menendez and Senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) placing new sanctions on Iran, which the Banking Committee passed earlier this year and has Democratic support. Another is to pass legislation that improves the security of American allies in the region.
The Republicans have also made it quite clear that this deal, even if Obama manages to shepherd it through Congress, will only last until January 21, 2017. Earlier this year, Republican Senator Tom Cotton sent a letter directly to Iranian leaders warning that if the Obama administration made a deal with the regime without the consent and approval of Congress, that the deal would be temporary and could change or be removed under a future president.
Senator Cotton said in an interview with MSNBC this week, “This proposed deal is a terrible, dangerous mistake that’s going to pave the path for Iran to get a nuclear weapon while also giving them tens of billions of dollars of sanctions relief, even lifting the arms embargo at a time when they’re destabilizing the entire middle east…The American people will repudiate this deal and I believe Congress will kill the deal.”
Another factor in this deal is the presidential politics of giving in to Iran. Although the GOP candidates have come out opposing the deal, Hillary Clinton is a major factor. Although she started the negotiations with Iran, she could come out in opposition to it, giving Democratic Senators and Representatives more reason to also oppose it.
However, at this time Hillary has remained vague to questions about the deal – probably waiting to see how voters react to it. In fact the campaign was stepping very carefully earlier this week.
When asked about the deal, Clinton spokesman Jesse Ferguson laughed and said,
“Everybody lives somewhere between support and opposition.”
Ferguson continued. “She thinks it’s a really good first step, she thinks it has the potential to put a lid on nuclear proliferation, it does a lot of good things. But, you know, at the same time, she also is going to read it.”
That position will likely evolve with time. Hillary probably thinks there’s a fair chance that Iran will delay or stall implementation of some obligations under the deal before the presidential election. If that happens, the GOP will destroy her with attack ads accusing her of being just as blind to threats to the United States as Obama was. That’s why she toughened her remarks this week with verbiage about enforcing the deal “vigorously, relentlessly.” If Obama ends up being outmaneuvered by Iran, then she’ll move away from Obama and the deal while pointing back to this week’s statement as proof that she warned everyone about the need for strict policing of the deal all along.
There is another reason for her vague remarks. She is monitoring the reaction to the deal and suspects that there’s a revolt amongst Democrats against the deal. That’s where Senator Schumer is critical. If Chuck Schumer decides he can’t support an agreement this one-sided, it could kill the Iranian deal. The only outcome for Hillary that could be worse than backing the deal (only to have Iran deviate from it) is backing the deal and then having her future congressional caucus embarrass her by opposing it anyway.
If there’s a “no” vote from the Democrats on the deal, Hillary will want to modify her position first lest it be seen as a vote of “no confidence” in her own foreign policy acumen. This means that she’s going to play it safe over the next two months, with cautious, “I like the deal but have grave concerns” responses.
On the Republican side, there is less division, although the tone set by different candidates varies. In terms of the Iranian nuclear deal, Jeb Bush is conciliatory, Marco Rubio is ideological, and Scott Walker is tough.
Current Republican front runner Donald Trump released the following statement in response to the Obama Administration’s agreement with Iran, “The Obama Administration’s agreement with Iran is very dangerous. Iran developing a nuclear weapon, either through uranium or nuclear fuel, and defying the world is still a very real possibility. The inspections will not be followed, and Iran will no longer have any sanctions. Iran gets everything and loses nothing.”
It continued, “Every promise the Obama Administration made in the beginning of negotiations, including the vow (made at the beginning of the negotiations) to get our great American prisoners returned to the U. S. has been broken. This is a bad deal that sets a dangerous precedent…This deal sets off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, which is the most-unstable region in the world. It is a horrible and perhaps catastrophic event for Israel.”
Trump had to come out strong against the deal because others stand to benefit in the upcoming fight against the deal. The Iranian agreement offers Senator Rubio (R, FL) the most potential since it must pass the Senate and as a Republican Senator with serious foreign policy credentials, he can put up a spirited fight against it. And, should that fight lead to defeating Obama, the gratitude of Republican voters may help him pull out from the rapidly growing pack of Republican presidential candidates.
Conversely, there is an advantage for both Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Sanders in the upcoming debate. Biden has been dispatched to Capitol Hill to win concerned Democrats about the deal. If he succeeds, it would look good for him and might convince some Democrats worried about Hillary Clinton’s chances in a general election that Biden may be a better choice.
Senator Sanders also benefits as a member of the Senate, which must give Obama at least 34 votes to sustain his veto. Sanders made a more positive statement by saying, “I congratulate President Obama, Secretary Kerry and the leaders of other major nations for producing a comprehensive agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. This is a victory for diplomacy over saber-rattling and could keep the United States from being drawn into another never-ending war in the Middle East. I look forward to learning more about the complex details of this agreement to make sure that it is effective and strong.”
Should Sanders be seen as critical to helping Obama pass this deal, it may help him in the Democratic race as he would be seen as stronger than Hillary, who was lukewarm in her support. However, if the deal proves to be a bad one by next year, he (and Hillary) could find their road to the White House sidetracked by former Democratic senator (And former Reagan Secretary of the Navy) James Webb.
Democratic presidential candidate James Webb said Wednesday that he is “very skeptical” of the deal Western nations recently struck with Iran over its nuclear program, and said he worries the Democratic Party has become “less inclusive” and too focused on social issues. In an interview with public radio host Diane Rehm, Webb says he thought Iran gets “a lot out of this” deal while he was still “trying to figure out” the American interest in the agreement to halt Iran’s nuclear program. “I have a lot of concern about this deal,” he added, explaining that he thought the deal would result in Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon and that Congress should have had more oversight.
That puts Webb at odds not only with Obama, but with all four other Democratic presidential candidates, who have said they support the deal.
However, that may be the key to winning in November 2016 for Webb, who touted himself as an “independent voice” this week. He has recently criticized his party for prioritizing “social issues.”
“I worry that the Democratic Party’s message has become less inclusive even that is as it has become more focused on different interest groups,” he said. “If you look at the 10 elections and 14 election, you will see the Democratic Party, I believe, needs to open up and be more inclusive to the people who traditionally part of the basic message of the Democratic Party.”
Last Sunday, Webb told Fox News that he thought his party had moved too far to the left. “That’s not my Democratic Party in and of itself,” he told Fox News.
Although this puts Webb at odds with many Democratic interest groups, it probably places him in the best advantage of retaining the White House for the Democrats in 2016. Independents, who want an agreement with Iran, but want strong guarantees, have moved strongly towards the Republicans in past years.
The American electorate is experiencing Obama fatigue, much as it experienced Bush fatigue in 2008. The best way for Democrats to win is to move from the progressive agenda and try to win back white, middle class voters who left the Democratic Party and sided with the GOP in 2014.
In this light, the Iranian nuclear deal may represent the biggest threat to the Democrats. All but one of their candidates is betting that the deal goes through and that there will be no “hurdle” by Iran or” major Iranian expansionism” in the next 15 months.
Given the historical tendency to vote for the opposition party after 8 years, the Democrats must hope for a strong economy and general approval of Obama – neither of which exists now. The best chance for the Democrats, in that case, is to pick a candidate that is as far from Obama’s position as possible and one that is more attractive to independents. Given the rest of the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates leftward leaning positions, Webb offers the best chance for Democrats to retain the White House next year – although the chances that they will take that route, no matter the outcome of the Iranian deal, is slim.
The Pros and Cons of the Iranian Nuclear Deal
By Christopher A. Preble
July 14, 2015
Earlier today in Vienna, international negotiators reached a deal with Iran over its nuclear program. The New York Times reports that the agreement will eventually lift oil and financial sanctions, “in return for limits on Iran’s nuclear production capability and fuel stockpile over the next 15 years.” The international restrictions on Iranian arms exports will remain in place for up to 5 years, and the ban on ballistic missile exports could remain for up to 8 years. In a televised statement this morning, President Obama defended his decision to engage in the negotiations “from a position of strength” and assured the American people that, under the deal, “Iran will not be able to achieve a nuclear weapon.” His opponents are sure to challenge both assertions.
The Arab-US Strategic Partnership and the Changing Security Balance in the Gulf
Joint and Asymmetric Warfare, Missiles and Missile Defense, Civil War and Non-State Actors, and Outside Powers
By Anthony H. Cordesman and Michael Peacock
Center for Strategic and International Studies
July 13, 2015
The ongoing confrontation with Iran, the war against ISIL, the instability in Iraq, the Civil war in Syria, and the conflict in Yemen have all made major changes in the security situation in the Gulf and in the regional military balance. The strategic partnership between Arab Gulf states, and with the U.S. and other outside states, must now evolve to both deal with conventional military threats and a range of new threats including ideological extremists, non-state actors, their state sponsors, and a growing range of forces design to fight asymmetric wars.
8 unplanned results of the Iran Deal
By Danielle Pletka
American Enterprise Institute
July 15, 2015
The Iran agreement released Tuesday will be parsed and reparsed for months. Can the inspections mechanism really work? How will Iran reduce its enriched uranium stockpile? Is it really wise to legitimize Iran’s ballistic missile program? There are a thousand questions and each side will have different answers. But what are the other implications of what Barack Obama insists is a “historic” deal?
Bridging the Gulf in the Gulf: Regional Peace After the Iran Deal
By Frederic Wehrey and Richard Sokolsky
July 14, 2015
Well before the ink was dry on the historic nuclear deal between the P5+1 negotiating partners and Iran, opponents of the Obama administration’s policy were advocating strategies to roll back Iran and thwart its ambitions for regional hegemony. Although the agreement will reduce the chances of Iran going nuclear for at least the next decade or more, this drumbeat will only grow louder as Tehran’s coffers, nearly empty after years of sanctions, begin to swell again. Although Iran is certainly playing an extremely dangerous role in Syria and its support for Iraqi militias is troubling, the most vocal champions of rollback often exaggerate the extent of Iran’s actual control over its proxies and downplay the more localized roots of conflict in the Levant. But they are right to underscore the need for the United States and its partners to counter Iranian actions that threaten important U.S. interests in the region.
The Assad Regime’s Hold on the Syrian State
By Kheder Khaddour
July 8, 2015
Since the early days of the Syrian uprising in 2011, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has made it a priority to keep state agencies running, allowing Assad to claim that the regime is the irreplaceable provider of essential services. Breaking the regime’s monopoly on these public services and enabling the moderate opposition to become an alternative source of them would weaken the regime and prevent the radical jihadist Islamic State from emerging to fill power vacuums across the country.
A Quick Guide to the Foreign Policy Views of the Republican Presidential Candidates
By Brandon George Whitehill
Foreign Policy Research Institute
As of this writing, sixteen candidates are formally running for the nomination of the Republican Party for the presidency of the United States. Our purpose here is modest: to report on the foreign policy views of all the candidates, showing where they agree and where they disagree on a selection of issues. On each issue, there seems to be one or two outliers among the candidates but the interesting thing is that the identities of the outliers are different on different issues. The purpose here is not to disparage or praise any one candidate, though sometimes it is hard not to notice an outright error of fact.
ISIS’s Global Strategy: A Wargame
Institute for the Study of War
The United States currently faces multiple national security threats in an environment of growing disorder. ISIS is executing a sophisticated global strategy that involves simultaneous efforts in Iraq and Syria, the Middle East and North Africa, and the wider world. Homegrown terrorism is increasing in the U.S. and Europe. Civil wars are intensifying in Ukraine, Yemen, and Libya, while the U.S. attempts to pivot to the Asia-Pacific. In this complex environment, it is difficult for policymakers to discern the consequences of action or inaction even in the near future.
Egypt: A Market for Natural Gas from Cyprus and Israel
By Nikos Tsafos
German Marshall Fund
July 14, 2015
This policy paper is a path-breaking analysis of the opportunities and risks associated with the possible export of natural gas from Israel and Cyprus to Egypt. His analysis establishes clearly that there will be significant shortfalls in gas supplies to the Egyptian market in the decade ahead despite major new investments, efforts at energy saving, and the reduction of subsidies. The author also points out that exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Egypt to markets in Asia and Europe from the two under-utilized LNG plants in the country could greatly add to the commercial attractiveness of gas imports from Israel. He provides a detailed analysis of the technical and financial conditions that would need to be satisfied to make such imports commercially viable.
We Should Not Let Euphoria About the Iran Nuclear Deal Cloud Our Judgment
By Michael Herzog
July 14, 2015
While the P5+1 negotiators in Vienna celebrate the nuclear deal with their Iranian counterparts, across the Middle East there is an atmosphere of gloom. In Israel, coalition and opposition — who rarely agree on anything — are now united in deep concern about the long-term implications for Israel and the region. Israel was not a participant in these negotiations, but its national security will be impacted more than anybody else’s. After all, Iran combines ideological commitment to Israel’s destruction with nuclear ambitions and the ability to project violence and instability through proxies on Israel’s borders and around the world. It is Israel whose elimination the Iranian supreme leader proudly tweets about. It is Israel that is targeted by tens of thousands of rockets supplied by Iran to armed groups on our borders, including Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. How will the agreement impact on these intentions and capabilities? As these lines are written, the full details of the deal still need to be digested. Not everything is yet clear, and questions abound regarding inspections, R&D, addressing the military dimensions of Iran’s programme and sanctions relief. Nonetheless, the main contours are known.