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Iran: The Senate Strikes Back

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J. Scott Applewhite/AP Images
Senator Bob Corker, outlining his proposal for a congressional vote on a nuclear deal with Iran, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, right, Washington, March 3, 2015

Ever since Hurricane Bibi blew through Washington last week, advocates and opponents of a possible nuclear agreement with Iran have been assessing the damage. It’s clear that the traditional bipartisan approach toward Israel has been smashed. But the essential question is what effect Netanyahu’s visit will have on the the nuclear deal and above all, whether Congress, by bringing it to a direct vote as it now threatens, will reject it, thus ending a long effort to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions and raising a long-term question as to whether US negotiators’ word amounts to anything.

Because the agreement—being negotiated by the Obama administration and fellow members of the P5+1 group––isn’t a treaty, it doesn’t have to be approved by the Senate by a two-thirds vote. But since the existing strict economic sanctions on Iran were imposed by Congress, many members insist that they should have a voice in whether they can be lifted, as they would be in the agreement, in exchange for tight controls designed to prohibit Iran from developing nuclear weapons. What this is really about is whether Congress will have veto power over the agreement itself—a power that has become Netanyahu’s and other opponents’ chosen route for sinking a deal.

Hours after Netanyahu’s speech, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, apparently eager to capitalize on its rapturous reception by the mostly Republican audience, announced that he’d shortly move that the Senate immediately take up a resolution requiring a congressional vote on any agreement with Iran. This went against McConnell’s earlier pledge that the Senate would proceed according to the “regular order,” which would have meant that legislation had to be considered by the relevant committee, in this case Foreign Relations, before it could be brought to the floor; and two days later, he backed down after Democrats threatened to block the move. But this is most likely a temporary retreat on McConnell’s part.

The principal resolution to give Congress an opportunity to vote on any nuclear deal is sponsored by the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Bob Corker, of Tennessee. It has been co-sponsored by Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democratic member on the committee, four other Democrats, and one Independent. As currently drafted (but subject to change, particularly if it has to be approved by the Foreign Relations Committee and as others weigh in) the resolution would require the administration, within five days of reaching an agreement, to submit it to Congress, which would move swiftly to vote on it—too swiftly, opponents of the resolution say, for serious consideration of its provisions. One particularly troublesome part of Corker’s proposal would require that the administration regularly report on whether Iran is involved in terrorist acts, which has nothing to do with arms control.

Corker is regarded as a relatively responsible figure, not simply a wrecker like so many of his party colleagues. He didn’t favor McConnell’s move to bring his bill to the floor just after Netanyahu’s speech, preferring that it go through the committee process first. Menendez, too, though a longtime critic of the negotiations with Iran, opposed bringing the resolution to a vote without review by the committee. But Corker now has to answer to the Republican Senate caucus if he wants his proposal to pass. And while Menendez has been a skeptic about dealing with Iran, it’s one thing to express concern about negotiations and another to defeat an international agreement that the administration has reached with Iran to try to prevent its development of nuclear weapons. (At the moment Menendez has other distractions: it was recently disclosed that the Justice Department plans to charge him with accepting gifts and lavish vacations from a supporter in exchange for governmental favors.) His most significant Democratic ally among the skeptics is Chuck Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate.

To give Democrats a palatable alternative to Corker’s proposal, Barbara Boxer, of California, along with some influential Democratic allies, has drawn up a counter proposal that would simply provide for congressional oversight of the terms of the agreement reached. The Boxer proposal would require regular reports by the administration to Congress and allow Congress to quickly reimpose sanctions if Iran were caught violating the agreement. The idea is to preserve the possibility of an agreement while still offering a way for Congress to have some authority over it. If Boxer’s more restrained approach is rejected in committee, this might, agreement supporters hope, make some Democratic senators less amenable to supporting Corker’s resolution.

The likely agreement with Iran has strong support from the foreign policy establishment, including such respected figures as Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski. It also has the support of various nuclear-control advocacy groups such as the Arms Control Association and the Council for a Livable World, as well as the Atlantic Council, heavily stocked with foreign policy brahmins. And while AIPAC, the influential hardline pro-Israel group (which Netanyahu also addressed during his stop in Washington) has come out against the likely agreement (and backs a congressional vote on it), the newer and more peace-oriented group J Street is growing in influence in Washington, and supports reaching a workable deal with Iran.

Supporters insist that Netanyahu’s bombastic speech, replete with not-unfamiliar warnings of dire consequences, didn’t make any real difference to the acceptability of such a deal in Congress. They say that the probable deal is less than perfect but believe that it’s workable—that the Iranians cannot cheat on it without getting caught, and that inspections would continue after the likely ten-year life of the ban on Iran’s developing nuclear weapons.

I’m not so sure that a sufficient number of members will end up sharing this view (both chambers will cast a vote on any resolution, though for now the action is in the Senate). Earlier this year Henry Kissinger, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, was full of forebodings about the administration’s negotiating position (though this didn’t tell us where Kissinger would stand when presented with an actual agreement). Netanyahu’s and AIPAC’s position is shared by evangelical groups, who are passionate supporters of Israel for their own doctrinal reasons and have become involved in the current fight over a nuclear deal with Iran.

Netanyahu’s very strong and well-crafted presentation probably gave some heft to the aginners—more talking points, more grounds for concern that the pending deal isn’t tight enough. Netanyahu may well have raised the bar for an agreement. Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, who has expressed concerns about the likely agreement, told me that Netanyahu “probably made some difference in adding weight and credibility to some of the reservations members of Congress had already.”

Timing could be everything. If the negotiations do produce a draft agreement by March 24, the most recent date specified (though there could be another extension) it will be only three days before Congress departs for its two-week spring recess. In the eyes of those who favor an agreement the recess gives them a chance to avoid an immediate vote and gain time to build support for it. (The opposite could be said to be the case for opponents.) A delay in a vote on approving or rejecting the agreement—as opposed to a rushed one just before the recess—will allow time for immediate reactions to the specific deal to give way to cooler consideration, and perhaps hearings in which a parade of notables would testify for or against it.

Advocates of the agreement worry about a simple yes-or-no vote: the near-total opposition of the Republicans and enough Democrats on an up-or-down vote could result in the Senate’s rejection of a viable deal, without any real alternative. The president could veto a negative resolution, but even if he weren’t overridden, the fact that there’d been a congressional vote against the agreement would seriously hobble his ability to implement it. And a Republican president, should one follow Obama, would be freer to abandon the deal.

David Cohen, a widely respected public-interest advocate in Washington who works with the Council for a Livable World, says, “Corker sets up a vote on something you don’t want a vote on.” The heart’s desire of the agreement’s supporters is to keep the agreement from coming to the Senate floor for an up-or down vote. The hope is to peel away any of the five Democrats or one Independent who co-sponsor the Corker proposal so that they won’t join the fifty-four Republicans and enable them to kill a filibuster against bringing it up, much less the sixty-seven required to override a presidential veto of a proposal such as Corker’s. If Corker’s proposal doesn’t have sixty votes, the agreement with Iran doesn’t get to the Senate floor.

For now, opponents of an agreement are running television ads encouraging people to call Congress to say that a nuclear “treaty” with Iran must be subject to congressional approval, and that that issue must be settled first. And then, on Monday, in a staggeringly inappropriate and audacious act, the highly conservative freshman Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who at thirty-seven is the youngest member of the Senate, led forty-six other Republicans in penning an open letter to the government of Iran. (Cotton had previously said that Congress should scuttle the negotiations.) The letter warned that

we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.

Joining Cotton on the letter were potential GOP presidential candidates Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, among others. (McConnell signed it; Corker did not.)

A rough fight is in store.

A vote by Congress to reject the agreement could lead to an end of diplomatic efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, an escalation of Iran’s and Israel’s threats of war on each other, and a possible Israeli military attack on Iran. And Iran would meanwhile be free to develop nuclear arms. To paraphrase Netanyahu, the agreement’s supporters believe that a less than perfect deal is much better than no deal. This, of course, depends on the imperfections, and that’s where the subjective judgments of the politicians come into play. Blumenthal, for one, worries that the inspection regime might not be thorough enough. But who is to decide what is “thorough enough”? In the end, the tenor of the debate will be affected by the question of trust in the geopolitical skills of Barack Obama as well as the relative desires of the members of Congress, Republican and Democratic, to give him a significant, even historic victory.

Whatever emerges from the negotiations later this month, some very big events will have happened in Israel, in particular the March 17 election, which as of now is believed to be a tight contest between Netanyahu’s party and the Zionist Union, his closest rivals. Even if Netanyahu prevails, his trip to the United States hasn’t proven to be the smashing political success at home that he had hoped. In fact, it’s created a powerful backlash. Retired Israeli generals spoke out against Netanyahu’s going to America to torpedo the deal while negotiations were still taking place. Within a couple of days after Netanyahu’s speech a former head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, told an interviewer that Netanyahu had misled Congress on how long it would take Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, and was generally scathing about Netanyahu’s approach to both Iran and the Palestinians.

On the Saturday after the speech Dagan, appearing at a large rally of Netanyahu opponents, said he was more afraid of Netanyahu’s governing than he was of Israel’s enemies. “No one denies that Iran’s nuclear program is a threat, but going to war with the US is not the way to stop it,” said Dagan. A question for Congress will be, Are you going to listen to Netanyahu or to the former head of Mossad and to the generals? (Word had it that Netanyahu didn’t clear his speech with his own head of intelligence.)

The stakes are clear: not only Barack Obama’s potentially greatest foreign policy achievement but also any hope of avoiding a war between Israel and Iran or even a nuclear conflagration in the Middle East.