The big question hanging over Washington a week after Election Day is how well President Barack Obama and the new Republican-dominated Congress will get along.
The optimistic view is that the GOP now has a powerful incentive to prove it can govern and not simply obstruct. Pessimists point out that the new Congress’ Republicans are collectively even more right-wing than their predecessors and that many won election by promising to oppose everything Obama does. Over the last week, Republican leaders have repeatedly spoken about passing lots of legislation, now that they will control the Senate as well as the House. As they present it, this — passing lots of bills — counts as governing. They gloss over the fact that many, perhaps most, of the bills they plan to pass Obama will be unwilling to sign.
Put another way, listening to last week’s discussions in Washington, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that, public statements to the contrary, both parties are concerned mainly with figuring out how this month’s election returns affect the playing field for 2016’s presidential contest. Taking all of that as a starting place it is, perhaps, surprising that Middle East policy, with one major exception, is likely to feel the effects of last week’s Republican wave less than other areas of Washington life. A GOP-controlled Senate means a more difficult road to confirmation for ambassadors and other senior Obama administration officials, but in many areas — such as military action against Daesh (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) — the executive branch will (for better or worse) continue to have a relatively free hand. Since all American congresses are resolutely pro-Israel, the direct impact on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (or whatever remains of it) is likely to be minimal.
Where things are likely to become a lot more difficult is Iran. The broad outlines of an agreement between the P5+1 (US, Britain, France, Russia, China + Germany) countries, led by the Americans, and Tehran over the latter’s nuclear programme have long been clear: Iran will mothball, suspend or dismantle much of its nuclear activity and allow its compliance with any agreement to be monitored. In exchange the West, particularly the US, will lift many of its sanctions on Iran and move to bring Tehran back into the wider international community.
The problem has always been hardliners on both sides (indeed, the fact that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has hardline constituencies at home that he needs to manage is a point often lost on Americans, many of whom see Iran as some sort of evil monolith).
Ever since the current round of nuclear talks began roughly one year ago a particular worry for the Obama administration has been Congress. Many of its members oppose any nuclear deal that does not amount to a complete Iranian surrender. This faction — which is not small and is very bi-partisan — has sought on multiple occasions to derail the talks by imposing even more sanctions on Iran. Those who believe that Obama would never sign such a bill forget that the US political system allows entire bills to be attached to other bills as amendments. If an amendment mandating new sanctions were tacked onto something Obama simply must sign (a bill to raise the debt ceiling or to pay soldiers salaries, for example) he would be left with few options.
Until now, Democratic control of the Senate kept that from happening. Harry Reid, the outgoing Majority Leader, refused to allow any new sanctions bill to come to the floor for debate, despite the fact that some of the most vocal backers of new and tougher sanctions are powerful members of his own (and Obama’s) party. Two months from now, Reid will be in the minority and his replacement, the Republicans’ Mitch McConnell, will have no incentive to watch the president’s back or help make the delicate talks go more smoothly.
And that is just the near-term problem. If the P5+1 and the Iranians do reach a deal it will surely require the Americans to ease the sanctions currently in place. Obama can do some of this through executive orders, but the big stuff requires Congressional action.
A deal is still possible, but any honest analyst has to acknowledge that it just became a lot harder. Traditionally, the way one dealt with a problem like this was by getting one’s political opponents involved in the negotiations — briefing them, listening to their views, making them feel that they had a stake in the outcome. That sort of approach, however, worked best in a Washington dominated by moderately conservative Democrats and moderately liberal Republicans. In other words: A Washington that has not existed for close to a generation.
Gordon Robison, a longtime Middle East journalist and US political analyst, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.