Obama's 'lame duck' status looms large in Iran nuclear negotiations

The subtext of the GOP letter to the Iranians is: Think twice before signing a deal with a lame-duck president.

By
March 10, 2015 03:53
4 minute read.
US President Barack Obama

US President Barack Obama. (photo credit: REUTERS)

In a briefing with Israeli journalists on Sunday, a senior US official was asked how the reported ill health of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was impacting the dynamic of the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

“I can’t speak to the supreme leader’s health,” the official said. “We have to deal with what is in the negotiation room.”

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Foreign news sources have reported in recent days that Khamenei was hospitalized in critical condition last week, though the 75-year-old – who underwent prostate surgery in September – was seen in public on Sunday.

The senior US official said while there was information from “lots of different places and voices” about Khamenei’s health, it was important to “try to stay focused on the real issues” in the negotiating room and deal with those problems.

“I don’t expect Iran to deal with American politics, and we don’t deal with Iranian politics,” she said.

Maybe so, but that memo was definitely not passed on to a group of 47 Republican senators who on Monday – just a few days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress against the Iran deal – sent an open letter to the leaders of Iran informing them that while US President Barack Obama will be leaving the White House on January 20, 2017, many of them will be hanging on a lot longer and can undo any agreement that is not brought to Congress for ratification.

“Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement” between Obama and Khamenei, the letter read.

“The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.”

The unprecedented letter served the Iranians notice that what they sign with Obama today may – if not approved by Congress – be annulled in less than two years’ time.

The question about whether an agreement will need to be brought to Congress is a loaded one. The administration is seemingly holding the position that what is being negotiated with Iran is not a treaty that needs to be ratified by Congress. But many congressmen and senators – mostly Republican ones – are saying they must sign off on it.

The subtext of the letter to the Iranians is: Think twice before signing a deal with a lame-duck president.

Had the Iranians had any contact with Israel, particularly with Netanyahu, they might have asked him about executive agreements.

Back in 2009, Netanyahu thought Israel had executive agreements in the form of a letter from George W. Bush to prime minister Ariel Sharon, as well as informal agreed principles with the Bush administration, specifying where and how settlement construction could take place.

But those agreements were not honored by the Obama administration, which pressed Netanyahu to declare a settlement freeze.

In fact, then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton said of the matter: “In looking at the history of the Bush administration, there were no informal or oral enforceable agreements. That has been verified by the official record of the administration and by the personnel in the positions of responsibility.”

Elliott Abrams, a senior Bush staffer who was involved in drawing up some of those principles and the Bush letter to Sharon, disputed Clinton’s account.

But never mind, these turned out to be little more than nonbinding understandings.

While the senior US official who briefed Israeli journalists tried to take politics out of the negotiating room – both American politics and Iranian succession politics that will certainly be rough and tumble once Khamenei dies – the US senators were very much introducing American politics into the equation.

US Secretary of State John Kerry indicated over the weekend that there was no certainty the Iranians will make the tough political decisions they need to complete an agreement on the potential parameters of a nuclear accord by the self-imposed March 31 deadline.

Perhaps one of the reasons is because the Iranians are wondering whether if they sign an agreement, something that will entail far-reaching concessions on their part, they might wake up the day after Obama leaves office with a Congress – and perhaps a new president – interested in imposing new restrictions.

Perhaps the Iranians are asking themselves – or the Republicans want them to ask themselves – “why sign an agreement, if the US might in less than two years change its terms?” The letter and the dynamics it brings out into the open also highlight something else drowned out in all the recent noise over Netanyahu’s speech to Congress last week. Many speculated if it was wise for Netanyahu to risk poisoning relations with Obama since the US president does have some 22 months left in office, and could choose to make life very difficult for Netanyahu and Israel.

That coin, however, has a reverse side as well: Obama has an expiration date. The senators rammed that point home in their letter to the Iranians, hoping it would perhaps get them to think twice. But it is a message that everyone in the region has already internalized.

While 22 months is a long time, it is not forever. If Obama had enormous difficulty forcing the actors in the region – including Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – to submit to his will when they knew he had seven, six, five and four years remaining in office, how much more so will they be willing to say “no” to him knowing that his weeks in office are numbered, and getting less day by day.


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