So, the interim nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers, including the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, is extended, again, after the two sides failed to clinch a historical deal resolving Iran’s nuclear crisis. According to United States Secretary of State John Kerry, talks have been extended “for seven months with the very specific goal of finishing the political agreement within four months,” leaving three months to iron out technical details.
John Kerry, speaking to reporters after the last round of talks in Vienna on Monday, November 24, said, “I can tell you that progress was indeed made on some of the most vexing challenges that we face, and we now see the path toward potentially resolving some issues that have been intractable. However, he added that “some significant points of disagreement” still remained.
In a televised statement, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, also expressed hopes toward possibly untying Iran’s nuclear Gordian Knot by saying, “many gaps were narrowed and our positions with the other side got closer.”
Although details of the talks have not been made public, experts maintain that the primary challenges facing a comprehensive agreement are the scope and size of Iran’s enrichment programme, the pace of lifting sanctions and the duration of the agreement after which Iran would be treated as a “normal” nuclear power.
Against this backdrop, Republican victories in the midterm Congressional elections have raised wide speculation that the new Congress would choose a more hawkish position on Iran that could potentially torpedo a final nuclear deal between the US and Iran. The Republican-controlled Congress convenes on January 3rd.
An October 19 New York Times report furthered tensions between the White House and the Congress on Iran’s nuclear programme. The report revealed that “the White House has made one significant decision: If agreement is reached, President Obama will do everything in his power to avoid letting Congress vote on it.”
The report quoted Bernadette Meehan, the spokeswoman for the National Security Council, saying there “is a role for Congress in our Iran policy,” but added that members of Congress demand a larger role than consultation and advising.
So it is now apparent that Obama wants to use his waiver authority as stipulated in the most damaging sanctions acts that target Iran’s banking and oil sectors.
In a letter dated November 20, as the world powers and Iran were making a last push for a nuclear deal before a November 24 midnight deadline in Vienna, 43 Republican senators wrote to Obama: “We are alarmed by recent developments in your administration's policy toward Iran. … Unless the White House genuinely engages with Congress, we see no way that any agreement consisting of your administration’s current proposals to Iran will endure in the 114th Congress and after your presidential term ends.”
Shortly after the announcement of the deadline extension, GOP Senate foreign policy figures John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte in a joint statement said, “We believe this latest extension of talks should be coupled with increased sanctions and a requirement that any final deal between Iran and the United States be sent to Congress for approval.”
Interestingly, the presidential waiver authorities that are included in the relevant acts have been ratified by the Congress, yet now that Obama is likely to use them, fierce Congressional opposition has emerged.
Under the Joint Plan of Action agreed between Iran and the P5+1, the US should refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions. In January, Obama explicitly threatened a veto on any new Iran sanction bill. Any new sanction bill would be considered as a violation of the JPOA on the part of the United States.
So how could the new Congress thwart the Obama administration’s efforts in making a deal with Iran?
From now until the end of this year, it is highly unlikely that GOP hardliners could succeed in introducing any sanction bill against Iran. The Majority Senate Leader, Democrat Harry Reid, has the authority to prevent a bill from being introduced. He has done it in the past, blocking the Kirk-Menendez sanction bill (Iran Nuclear Weapon Free Act of 2013) last January. But Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell will succeed Reid in January when Republicans control the Senate in addition to the House.
The Republican-dominated Congress can try to derail nuclear negotiations in four ways. First, the lawmakers could pass new and tougher sanctions on Iran. Second, they can pass a bill to drastically reduce Obama’s power to waive sanctions, make it conditional to final approval of the Congress, or strip Obama’s authority on waiving existing sanctions. Third, they could pass resolutions of disapproval and try to restrain Obama’s ability to implement the deal. And fourth, they could pass new sanctions against Iran on “non-nuclear related issues” such as human rights and terrorism that could nullify any sanctions relief that Iranians receive under their final agreement with the US/P5+1.
Regarding these strategies, experts almost overwhelmingly argue that Obama will veto any such bill. To override an Obama veto, the Congress would need a two-thirds majority in each chamber.
To retain a veto, Obama would need the backing of at least 34 of 100 senators. Many experts offer four reasons as to why attracting veto-sustaining support is possible.
The first reason is the chaotic situation in the Middle East. For example, the rise of jihadist forces and the likelihood of Iraq and Syria spiraling into failed states would create a power vacuum in both countries that could be filled by the caliphate of terror and its affiliated groups. The US administration and many Democrats realize that Iran is well positioned in both countries. The US, in cooperation with Iran and its regional allies, can organize a concerted and coordinated effort in combatting the IS. Success of the talks, as Rouhani has alluded to, will create a platform on which the two countries can expand their cooperation on fighting against terrorism.
Second, if the talks conversely fail, the vicious circle of the past will again emerge. Such a situation would see the toughening of US sanctions and the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program. Irreconcilable and confrontational policies in the US and Iran cannot continue forever. History shows that when states cannot overcome their disputes through diplomacy, the only other alternative which remains is military solution. After the disastrous results of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US would not want a war that in former American Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta‘s words will “consume the Middle East in a confrontation and a conflict that we would regret.”
Third, overturning foreign policy presidential vetoes has been very rare. In the last century, the Congress has overridden such presidential vetoes only twice. The first one belonged to President Richard Nixon in 1973, while the second to President Reagan in 1986.
Fourth, the Europeans may challenge the Congress. According to some reports, one source close to the negotiations said that “Congress has been warned that the EU may well decide to re-engage with Iran unilaterally if the blame for a breakdown in talks falls on Congress.” This means that the US sanctions may shatter if the Congress solely seeks to advance its political agenda.
Many experts believe that even a Republican-controlled Senate would lack the two-thirds vote needed to override Obama’s veto.
Under condition of anonymity, a congressional staffer familiar with the nuclear negotiations with Iran told this author that, in his view, “the Democrats will get enough votes to sustain a presidential veto of any new sanctions legislation from now until June 30.” Nevertheless, he maintained that “if there is no deal after this long extension … the congressional forbearance will unlikely hold” and that “Obama’s veto will be likely overridden after June 30.”
As Jim Walsh, a research associate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and expert on Iranian nuclear diplomacy, has predicted, “there will definitely be a fight. It will be a hard fight.” But, he added, it will be a fight “that the president can win because the consequences of failure are high.”
In the coming weeks and months, one ought to prepare for perhaps one of the most intense factional infightings in the US over Iran’s nuclear crisis.
Shahir ShahidSaless is a political analyst and freelance journalist writing primarily about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs. He is also the co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace, published in May 2014. He lives in Canada.