international analysis and commentary

Washington and the Iranian nuclear issue: a domestic battle in the US

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As talks between Iran and the E3+3 (Britain, France, Germany, plus China, Russia and the US) continue in light of the looming June deadline for a final agreement, the Obama administration and the US Congress are increasingly clashing over the best way to deal with Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

The Iranian dossier has been one of the top priorities of President Barack Obama, especially since his second mandate started two years ago. In the words of Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, “This is probably the biggest thing President Obama will do in his second term on foreign policy. This is healthcare for us, just to put it in context.” Since the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), an interim deal committing Iran to curb its most sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for some limited and reversible sanction relief, was signed in November 2013, the US negotiators have frequently met with their Iranian counterparts, often without the presence of the other members of the E3+3; Secretary of State John Kerry has been part of the US delegation and his meetings with the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, have progressively broken a three-decade taboo of bilateral encounters between high-level officials of the two countries.

Whilst gaps between the negotiating parties remain wide, with only a few days left before the next deadline set for March 24, hopes have greatly increased that the E3+3 and Iran will reach a first stage agreement by then, outlining a political framework and facilitating the drafting of a final deal by the end of June. This is largely due to the political capital invested by the Obama administration in engaging Iran in an attempt to find a peaceful solution to the nuclear impasse. More recently, US negotiators have begun acknowledging that a deal would need to be based on a formula that would curb Iran’s nuclear activities for a double-digit number of years, whilst allowing some level of enrichment and, after the agreement expires, an industrial-size nuclear program. Such formula would ensure a minimum one-year “breakout” time, providing the international community with enough reaction time to stop Tehran should it divert from a peaceful program by producing enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.

Several lawmakers in Washington, however, have been openly critical of any deal short of totally dismantling all of Iran’s nuclear facilities, an option deemed unrealistic by the US administration. These members of Congress – from both parties – have also raised concerns about an agreement that would immediately begin lifting some of the sanctions imposed by the US on Iran, a position that the administration, on the other hand, has been keen in considering in the context of a negotiated deal and the flexibility required for a diplomatic success. Among them, South Carolina’s Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and New Jersey’s Democrat Robert Menendez, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have been particularly vocal about the need to introduce new sanctions against Iran, arguing that this would be a necessary step to increase the US’ leverage at the negotiating table.

Congress threatened to move precisely in the direction of new sanctions in the aftermath of the JPOA, countering what the E3+3 intended as a sanction-free negotiating timeframe and thus potentially undermining the progress made at the diplomatic table. Obama then threatened American lawmakers with a presidential veto. This successfully kept them from pushing for additional sanctions on Iran in the past year. However, since January, Congress has ratcheted up calls for a legislation which would impose new economic restrictions, should a framework agreement not be reached in March. A second piece of legislation, presented by Republican Senator Bob Corker on February 27, would require the White House to submit any nuclear deal with Iran to Congress for a 60-day review period.

Former Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, David Cohen, stated that “new sanctions at this time, even with a delayed trigger, are more likely to undermine, rather than enhance, the chances of achieving a comprehensive agreement”. Together with UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who recently met with Obama in Washington, the US President urged Congress to give his administration time to complete negotiations with Tehran and to “hold (its) fire”, delaying the vote until the end of March. Echoing what was stated by Cohen, Obama argued that more sanctions would divide the international diplomatic coalition on Iran, undoing what has been achieved so far and potentially driving the Iranian negotiators to pull out of the nuclear talks.

After Speaker of the House John A. Boehner invited Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to speak about Iran before a joint session of Congress on March 3, without consulting nor notifying the White House, tensions between the legislative and the executive branches in the US have further increased. In his address to Congress, Netanyahu, who has grown further and further apart from the US President over the Iranian nuclear issue during the past three years, attacked the administration for negotiating “a very bad deal”. Obama promptly cold-shouldered the speech of the Israeli Prime Minister, stating that he is “less concerned with Netanyahu’s commentary than with Congress taking actions that might undermine talks before they’re completed.” In fact, Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu came hours after Obama, in his State of the Union speech, urged greater cooperation in Washington over the Iranian dossier, whilst renewing his threat to veto any Congressional legislation imposing additional sanctions on Iran.

Though the White House has so far handled the Iranian issue in an independent manner, and, as stated by Deputy Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, views an agreement with Iran as an “executive prerogative” not requiring Congressional approval, the Hill will in any case have an indirect imprint on the deal. Only Congress has the authority to lift the sanctions it imposed against Iran, whilst the US President can only rely on so-called waiver authority, which is temporary and therefore does not provide enough assurances to the Iranians. The question that remains unanswered is thus to what extent the infighting between the administration and Congress in Washington will hamper the ability of the E3+3 to reach a final agreement with Iran.