What is striking about the announced extension of the “P5 +1” nuclear talks with Iran is the absence of support for the president and his hapless secretary of state. It’s not surprising that giving Iran another $2.8 billion in sanctions relief while it proceeds with centrifuge research, its ICBM program, its low-level enrichment and its support for terrorism doesn’t garner applause. That said, the number of Democrats speaking out against the move and the broad agreement is noteworthy. The blowback signals the administration is going to find itself cornered in November when, as we suspect, there will be no acceptable deal in the offing.
There have been multiple expressions over the last year or so by huge bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate on the contours of an acceptable deal: The vast majority of Iran’s centrifuges and the Arak and Fordow facilities must be disabled, and Iran must come clean on its past activities and must allow unfettered inspections. President Obama will be hard pressed to sell any deal that falls short of this to Congress in order to lessen sanctions, especially if the Senate flips to GOP control. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is allowing no votes on sanctions, but he is powerless to prevent most of his members from withholding support for a bad deal.
On Friday at a conference on the Iran deal put on by the hawkish Foreign Policy Initiative, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) argued, “We’re in a weaker bargaining position than we should be. … Instead of dealing with an Iran on the ropes about to fall apart economically after over a dozen years of the toughest possible sanctions, we have an Iran that … has a two percent economic growth rate. …. Here in America we call that ‘a recovery’.” He reiterated the terms of an acceptable deal: “A final deal has got to say that Iran must [be] years away from breakout, years between when we know they’re violating the agreement to when they have a first bomb.”
The ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), said much the same thing: “In my view, and I think I speak for a lot of other members of Congress on this scene, if we ease sanctions without having a good deal in hand, we’re giving away the farm. And, if the Iranians want to get this weight off their backs, they need to earn it. I agree with Secretary Kerry when he says that no deal is better than a bad deal. The question is we need to define what a bad deal is and what a good deal is. … Like many of you, I have trouble stomaching that the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism would have any kind of enrichment capability. And that’s why strong provisions are needed to ensure Iran is living up to its word. Any sort of agreement would be contingent on inspections, transparency, and verifications measures … and how long they’ll last.”
In essence, Obama has made things harder for himself by refusing to allow the imposition of sanctions. Without that additional leverage, the chances of accomplishing an acceptable deal are virtually nil, and he’s going to find it near impossible to get Congress to buy into a rotten deal. Obama therefore faces a united and recalcitrant Congress and a new deadline he likely cannot meet. Iran will have no reason to make any more concessions; Congress, especially after the midterms, will have no excuse to refrain from imposing additional sanctions. As Sherman explained, “first, we expose Iran’s militarization and we rally world support. Second, we pass triggered sanctions.”
Frankly, Kerry can keep talking in Vienna until the cows come home (and Congress is powerless to stop him), but it will be under new circumstances, biting sanctions and, if we are fortunate, other measures that will signal unity among allies. If Iran walks from the table, it will have failed to accomplish its key objective — rollback of all the sanctions.
As was the case in the government shutdown, it is important to understand what Congress can and cannot do with a Senate majority under Reid’s thumb and Obama in the White House. Congress can and is laying a measuring stick to assess a final deal that it hopes will preclude a giveaway. Congress can and should conduct exacting oversight hearings and put the administration negotiators’ feet to the fire. Why trust that we are narrowing the gaps when Iran still is declaring it will increase not dismantle centrifuges? How can we possibly conduct effective inspections if Iran doesn’t come clean on its past activities? But candidly, so long as Reid is in charge in the Senate they’ll be no sanctions vote unless the White House relents, and so long as Obama is in the White House, Iran will remain convinced he has no red line except the avoidance of confrontation. Elections do have consequences, and there will be far-reaching ones based on the outcome of the midterms and the 2016 presidential election.