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Commentary | 30 March 2015

Can a deal with Iran stick in Washington?

Image of Adam Quinn

Adam Quinn |Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Birmingham

Iran JCPOA Middle East Nuclear Weapons Security United States Global Security

With the moment of decision looming, many observers of the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran have legitimate questions regarding its capacity to make a deal (should a deal be done soon) stick in the face of opposition at home.

On March 3rd, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, en route to re-election on March 17th, received a rapturous reception from the majority of the U.S. Congress following an address that amounted to a frontal assault on the president’s negotiation strategy. On March 9th, first-term Republican Senator Tom Cotton, published an open letter to the Iranian leadership, co-signed by 46 of his Senate colleagues, designed to undermine the president’s standing as deal-maker. Both events served to underline the depth of opposition within Congress, and especially the majority Republican Party, to any deal that might be done on terms even minimally acceptable to Iran.

This disagreement is based in part on substantive divergence between the respective analyses of the president and his Congressional critics as to the merits of a deal with Iran within the parameters attainable. Congressional Republicans are more pessimistic in their reading of the Iranian leadership’s intentions, and more extreme in their demands. In effect, like Netanyahu, they insist that nothing short of total Iranian surrender of what it considers its sovereign prerogatives will suffice to answer their security concerns.

But the issue has also taken on symbolic significance within American domestic politics. From the moment of his election, President Obama made outreach to Iran a signature policy, and as the end of his term draws into view the attainment of a deal has become a priority legacy objective. In the context of the heated partisanship that defines American politics in 2015, that fact alone is sufficient to guarantee any proposed deal will face the automatic and irreconcilable opposition of most Republican legislators, regardless of its content. In addition, in today’s Washington DC little can be expected in the way of rhetorical self-restraint even in matters of national security.

On the basis of all the above, it is a safe assumption that any deal the president might conclude with Iran would be dead on arrival at the U.S. Senate should it be sent there for approval. Does this make it less likely that such a deal will be done? Perhaps not, for the following reasons:

First, as previously noted, the president has made securing a deal with Iran, if there is one to be had, his priority. There is a high likelihood that any Republican successor to the presidency in 2017 will be disinclined to pursue any negotiations towards an agreement, and the front-running Democratic contender for nomination, Hillary Clinton, has made a point of voicing scepticism that Iran would agree to terms acceptable to the U.S. Thus, President Obama has reason to doubt the prospects for agreement after he has left office, no matter who succeeds him. The relative lack of enthusiasm for his efforts at home may in fact provide him an even stronger incentive to conclude a deal that attains his minimum threshold for acceptability before his time in office runs out.

Second, although it is true that a treaty agreement with Iran would require an unattainable two-thirds of the Senate to vote for it, it is not envisioned that any deal would take the form of a treaty and so this will not be required. Rather, it would take the form of an executive agreement which can be reached without reference to Congress.

Third, while it is true a Congressional majority vote would be required to permanently lift sanctions on Iran, the president has the authority under current law to waive them temporarily. To prevent this, Congressional opponents would need to pass new legislation, which the president could and would veto. This could be overridden by a Congressional super-majority, but there is no sign that it would be possible for opponents of a deal to mobilise one.

Fourth and final point, any deal reached will not be a simple bilateral arrangement: it will be an international agreement between Iran and the P5+1, and will cover not only American sanctions but those currently imposed by others. Though a future president and Congress opposed to an agreement signed by Obama might pass new American laws that conflict with that deal, they would only be able to unpick a limited part of it. Certainly the U.S. could not unilaterally restore the status quo ante of UN sanctions once they are lifted.

Assuming that any deal would involve a staged sequence of reciprocal actions, perhaps drawn out over a period of years, it may be that the administration intends to build in the permanent lifting of US sanctions, and therefore the need for a Congressional vote, nearer the end than the beginning of that sequence. This would put the task of soliciting the required majority vote in the hands of a future president, at a time when the deal might be seen as delivering positive outcomes in terms of Iran’s compliance and regional stabilization. There is also a chance that by that point Obama’s withdrawal from the scene might have lessened the partisan heat of the issue.

It is true that any deal with Iran faces significant hurdles within U.S. politics. Republicans will retain sufficient blocking power in Congress to prevent the permanent lifting of sanctions on Iran for the foreseeable future. All Republican presidential candidates will likely be pressed hard during the primary process to come out in explicit opposition to any deal done by Obama, and it would require a bold determination (that none have a clear interest in displaying) to resist that pressure. Even the commitment of a Democratic successor to seeing through any deal inherited from Obama is uncertain.

Nevertheless, it has been apparent for some time that the president has decided the military options for addressing Iran’s nuclear programme come with a terrible price, while diplomatic alternatives to the present course are hard to identify. Diplomacy is often the art of postponing the moment of crisis in the hope that ‘something will turn up’, and President Obama may well follow this logic to conclude a deal despite knowing it faces major obstacles in Washington. Perhaps with the President’s own polarising presence having passed from the scene, and with his successor called upon to address the fait accompli of an established deal which delivers on its promises and is supported by America’s international partners, Obama’s strategy might ultimately be vindicated.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.