It’s not often that a White House gets clobbered on a major foreign policy initiative, unanimously, in Congress. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s 19-0 vote on the Corker-Cardin measure after virulent administration opposition up until this morning was the end result of a series of events that have rendered a thumbs-down verdict on the president’s credibility in preventing a nuclear capable Iran.
We can trace events to Speaker of the House John Boehner’s decision to invite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress. The White House’s overreaction and openly expressed venom followed by Netanyahu’s masterful speech turned the national discussion, for the first time, to the substance of the Iran deal. Once the president was forced to fess up that there would be a sunset clause and that we would be leaving Iran with its nuclear infrastructure — facts that were only revealed in an Obama interview on the eve of (and in anticipation of) Netanyahu’s speech — the scene was set for a full explication of the dangers of such concessions. Observers could also see that the administration had slid from dismantling Iran’s nuclear capability to managing it. With Netanyahu’s victory and Obama’s intensified vendetta against him, the latter’s credibility continued to slide even with Democrats and liberal pro-Israel groups who sensed the pivot to Iran was real and could endanger Israel. Even liberals could see the president was behaving peevishly and sending a horrible signal to Iran with his attacks on Israel.
The next nail in Obama’s coffin was the framework itself. It was a fig leaf, unilaterally presented to conceal a lack of agreement on numerous key issues. But once again it had the effect of shocking the body politic and raising real concerns about the president’s judgment. The administration announced it as an “historic” deal, but over the weeks that followed the White House had to acknowledge there were lots and lots of fundamental issues to resolve.
Obama’s position was further eroded by an op-ed from former secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George P. Shultz, who dissected the framework. That caught the attention of Democrats and of the foreign policy community, rendering ridiculous the president’s claim that opposition was simply unhinged partisanship. And finally, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s public repudiation of the U.S. fact sheet and public insistence on unattainable concessions laid bare a reality Democrats had deflected: The president was wildly casting concessions at the Iranians, getting nothing and systematically making it easier not harder for Iran to both lift sanctions and preserve the option of a nuclear breakout.
No wonder the president and Kerry could not hold the line with Senate Democrats Tuesday. The position that the Senate would have no consequential role in lifting sanctions it had established was not sustainable in the long run, but the dam was also broken by the series of events — from Netanyahu’s speech to the framework to Kissinger and Schultz’s op-ed to the Supreme Leader, all effectively undercutting the president’s insistence on being the sole master of any Iran deal (one whose purpose had changed dramatically). The White House overplayed its hand, but its mistake was more than tactical. Obama’s decision to embark on a grand reconciliation with Iran as the capstone of his presidency was a foolish pipe dream, one that led him to desperation with the Iranians on nuclear talks, and ultimately to the flimsy framework. Once he was willing to let Iran keep its nuclear infrastructure no “good deal” was possible.
So what now? The gap between the sides is enormous and I would not be surprised to see the administration sail right past its June deadline, necessitating yet another extension of the interim accord. At that point Senate Democrats will once again be on the hot seat since they have promised to redouble sanctions if there is no deal. Do they act at that point? Does the interim accord simply run through the end of the Obama presidency? We shall see.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) sounded a warning to the president at the hearing Tuesday:
I have many questions about the framework agreement, including but not limited to the divergent understandings of the agreement, the difference on what Iran can do with research on advanced centrifuges, the timing and pacing of sanctions relief, the ability to snap back sanctions if there are violations of the agreement, the lack of addressing the possible military dimensions of Iran’s program, [and] the degree of the IAEA’s ability to have snap inspections, not regular inspections, among others. But that is all the more reason for Congress to have an in-depth oversight role.
Implicit in that is the vow that a deal that does not specifically address all those items will not get support from a significant segment of Democrats. And now we know those Democrats are willing to defy the White House.
The reality is and always has been that the number of concessions that Iran is currently willing to give (practically none that are permanent) are less than any deal Congress will accept. The way to change that, from the president’s perspective, was to cut Congress out. Now, Congress has said he must get Iran, not the American people’s representatives, to budge. After years of concessions and passivity in the face of Iranian aggression, Obama may be hard pressed to accomplish that. You see, Congress does not trust him but Iran has contempt for him, and that makes his “legacy” achievement difficult to obtain.