The president’s best approach with Congress

Congress and the American people want reassurance that our negotiators aren’t giving away the store just to get an agreement.

U.S. President Barack Obama (photo credit: REUTERS)
U.S. President Barack Obama
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘Negotiations that began 12 years ago as an international effort to prevent an Iranian capability to develop a nuclear arsenal are ending with an agreement that concedes this very capability, albeit short of its full capacity in the first 10 years.” – Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, former US secretaries of state, The Wall Street Journal The president has made it clear that he believes he has the right to negotiate and then commit the US to an agreement, i.e. treaty, without the consent of Congress, although since the unsigned framework was announced he has adopted a more conciliatory tone. His spokesman Josh Earnest said, “On our two principles here, about protecting the presidential prerogative and preventing the implementation of the agreement, we’re going to stand firm.” Finally, a red line this president promises not to cross! As Robert Einhorn, President Obama’s former top nuclear negotiator said, the Iran negotiations are “a major component not just of his foreign policy but of his presidency, and it’s a major battle [with Congress].”
Congress and the American people want reassurance that our negotiators aren’t giving away the store just to get an agreement, especially after the supreme leader of Iran said President Obama’s fact sheet was “mostly against reality.”
An NBC poll found 68 percent of Americans do not believe Iran will uphold the treaty, and a majority said it is a serious threat to American interests.
Adding fuel to the fire of skepticism is the smiling Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who said that there should be no real-time camera monitoring of nuclear sites. And according to Iran’s Mehr media outlet he also said, “I have told the Western diplomats that Iran is capable of making an atom bomb anytime it wills.”
Further complicating the president’s effort to gain trust for his factsheet was the statement of Iranian Defense Minister Brig.-Gen. Hossein Dehgan, who said reports that the deal will allow International Atomic Energy Agency experts to inspect military centers across Iran were “lies” and “deceits,” according to The Times of Israel. What at first looked like a promising English-language factsheet quickly evaporated into an unsigned framework, with a completely different version written in Farsi.
The president didn’t help his case when he contradicted himself, claiming that all paths to a nuclear weapon have been closed but then telling NPR’s Steve Inskeep that the breakout time for a nuclear weapon will go to “zero” soon after the 10 year sunset provision. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf has tried unsuccessfully to walk back this bombshell of a statement.
Instead of treating Congress as an adversary, the president would do better to embrace Congress, not marginalize it, and allow its constitutionally proper and customary role in foreign policy. Achieving an agreement with the consensus of Congress would certainly strengthen Obama’s reputation as a statesman and safeguard his foreign policy legacy, should Iran fails to honor its commitments.
Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is known as a legislator who likes to get things done. If the president met him with enough assurances crafted into the deal, a bipartisan result could be achieved. Contrary to the president’s assertions, most everyone wants a diplomatic deal, not war.
Many people believe that the president is avoiding Congress not out of principle, but because he knows that there are so many loopholes in the deal, that would only come to light years after his presidency ends. If he thinks that history will be kind to him because the collapse of the deal occurs on another president’s watch, he is sadly mistaken.
So how can the president win over Congress? The best approach to get Congress onboard is to reassure the American people that breaches of the accord will be met with automatically imposed consequences, based on Congressional legislation.
Even if verification were good, without automatic sanctions, the Iranians would have no motivation to be faithful to a final signed deal.
The president should end his approach of outsourcing compliance with a final deal to the UN, whose record on enforcing treaties and inspections is scandalous. No serious person really believes that sanctions or consequence will be restarted by the United Nations while China and Russian sit on the Security Council with veto power. Iran knows this and will incrementally cheat on the deal, knowing UNSC consequences will never be forthcoming.
That leaves only American congressionally-imposed sanctions as something real, tangible, and which the Iranians will truly respect and fear. This would require the president’s team to delineate in the final agreement, very specifically, what actions would constitute material breaches of the agreement, and what Iran should expect in response.
Providing this might suffice to get Congress on board.
Congress and the American people are worried that we are about to make it easy for Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. We know that Iranian leadership practices taddiyah, religiously sanctioned deception.
We see that even now where the American (English) and Iranian (Farsi) statements about the agreement disagree.
The American statement claims that Iran has agreed not to use advanced centrifuges, while the Iranian text insists “work on advanced centrifuges shall continue.” The FARS Iran news agency quoted senior Iranian officials as saying “Iran will begin using IR-8 centrifuges as soon as its nuclear deal goes into effect.” IR-8’s are 20 times faster than the IR-1’s, which would reduce breakout time to literally weeks.
Concerning the heavy-water reactor at Arak, where plutonium is processed to create weapons-grade nuclear material, the American text says that the core of the plant will be reconfigured. The Iranians disagree. Regarding sanctions, the American text says there would be slow relief of sanctions, but the Iranians say the Americans agreed to “immediately” terminate sanctions.
Instead of automatic sanctions, some supporters of the president are trying to win over our Gulf State allies with a dangerous offer for American interests.
Steven Spiegel of the Israel Policy Forum is proposing, “Alongside the agreement with Tehran, we can offer these [Israel and the Gulf States] a network of formal commitments guaranteeing that an attack by Iran on any of those countries would be considered an attack on the United States.” This is how WWI started. This could easily spin out of control and lead to a massive regional war with American boots on the ground.
The president has also said that he wants this deal not to have any connection to Iran’s support of terror or human rights travesties. But Congress should resist removing at least the provision of the Corker-Menendez bill that would require the executive branch to periodically certify that Iran “has not directly supported or carried out an act of terrorism against the United States.”
According to The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus, a supporter of the deal, this provision is “offensive to the administration...[and] the provision should be gone.” That is a mistake and undermines the credibility of the president.
For Israel’s part, it needs to tell the American people that regarding the threat of Iran to Israel’s security, Likud and Labor, Right and Left stand together in their opposition to the creation of a nuclear-armed enemy who persists in vowing to massacre their citizens. Americans do not in general realize that the vast majority of Israelis are dissatisfied with the current Iran deal.
Going forward won’t be easy. As former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz wrote for the Wall Street Journal, “Negotiating the final agreement will be extremely challenging...Rather than enabling American disengagement from the Middle East, the nuclear framework is more likely to necessitate deepening involvement there.”
The author is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political and Information Network), a Middle East research analysis read by members of Congress, their foreign policy advisers, members of the Knesset, journalists and organizational leaders. He regularly briefs members of Congress on issues related to the Middle East.