The Republican push for a congressional vote on any nuclear agreement with Iran is a potential threat to both proponents and opponents.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) wants any deal submitted to Congress within three days of signing for debate, hearings and a vote. Under his proposal, Congress would hold a non-binding “vote of disapproval” that would not have the force of law but could be a spoiler.
The administration strongly opposes it as an intrusion on the president’s constitutional authority to conduct foreign policy. It also fears the Iranian Majlis, where hardliners oppose any compromise with the Great Satan and don’t want to surrender anything, even if it is something Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says they don’t want.
The hardliners in Tehran, who hold a strong majority in parliament, are betting that if even there is no deal, the United States doesn’t have the stomach for another war.
They think Barack Obama is bluffing; they heard his West Point speech last week and got the impression he is a reluctant warrior who, unlike his predecessor who branded their country part of the axis of evil, prefers to “resolve our differences peacefully.”
That worries many in Washington, too.
They heard the same commencement address and got the same impression, namely that the president may have said the military option is still on the table, but he is anxious to avoid it.
With less than seven weeks before the deadline to reach a deal, a wall of resistance is being built in Washington that threatens to scuttle any agreement. It is being constructed on both political and policy grounds, although it’s hard to tell the difference at times.
Corker insists his amendment is intended to give Congress a chance to review any executive agreement with Iran, although, unlike a treaty, it does not require Senate ratification.
He tried to attach it to an Israel-related bill, with the backing of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, hoping that would make it veto proof. But Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) pulled the bill in the face of strong administration objections.
The White House had good reason to question the political intentions of the Corker amendment’s backers. It also had Constitutional grounds, saying it would limit the president’s authority to negotiate with foreign countries and would set a bad precedent.
Ambassador Dennis Ross, who handled Iran policy early in the Obama administration, said it “would be a mistake” to bypass Congress.
Writing with two other Washington think-tankers he called for detailed briefings for lawmakers to establish a bipartisan consensus in support of any agreement, but they stopped short of calling for a vote. The op-ed authors said any deal would be more credible if the administration presented “a clear plan to deal with cheating” by Iran, including making clear “the consequence of cheating.”
Hearings could help assure the American public and Israel that the deal is a good one.
Congress will have an opportunity to vote later on. The president has limited authority to ease some sanctions but permanently removing them will require a vote of Congress.
When that time comes there will not only be a debate but more importantly a chance to evaluate Iran’s performance. Any deal will be phased in, allowing Iran to demonstrate its commitment and compliance.
Iran has an incentive to comply. It knows it can’t get the long-term trade and investment deals it seeks with the West if potential partners know the United States could revoke the agreement and impose new sanctions if it finds Teheran moving across the nuclear threshold. They also want to break out of international isolation, revive their economy and be a recognized regional leader.
Congress needs to be kept informed but trying to micromanage the negotiations is a non-starter.
The Corker amendment is a two-edged sword.
The White House is not paranoid to think Republicans may be looking for an opportunity to block any agreement with Iran so they can hand Obama a stunning foreign policy defeat they can take to the polls in November to hammer Democrats.
GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, in the race of his political life, swore he’d make Obama a one-term president and when that failed he set about to make his second term miserable, employing a string of filibusters to thwart the Obama agenda. It’s hard to imagine he would let an Iran agreement come up for a fair vote if given the chance.
Leading the charge would be the GOP’s warrior wing, led by Sen. John McCain of Arizona and his wingman Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, who’ve never seen a conflict they wouldn’t like to join. Critics will insist they’re only trying to strengthen the administration’s bargaining position, but it’s mostly to scuttle any agreement.
One of the great advantages of being in the Congress is you can take credit for everything and the blame for nothing. If the deal works it’s because we forced him to accept crippling sanctions; if it fails, it’s Obama’s fault for not doing what we told him to.
The administration has a strong riposte to the Republican parry. The GOP may be tempted to try to hand Obama a major defeat, but do they want to go to the polls with Democrats accusing them of trying to take the country into another war in the Middle East? President Obama can speak to the nation from the Oval Office and say: “We’ve got a deal. We and our allies have negotiated a breakthrough agreement – one that is more effective and durable than what would be achieved through the use of force. This means that Iran has moved back from the nuclear threshold, that it will be subject to intense inspections and that if it cheats, we will be prepared to use all the force necessary to prevent it from building a nuclear weapon.
“This would not have been possible without our strong enforcement of bipartisan economic and diplomatic sanctions. But this partnership is now being threatened by a Republican- led effort to block the agreement because it does not do everything they would like, however unrealistic their demands may be.
“The rejection of this agreement will not bring an Iranian surrender but carries the possibility of another unwanted war in a Muslim country. I am sure that is not what the American people want.
“My fellow Americans, we cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.”