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International Politics

Obama’s Deal with Congress: Who Wins?


Summary: Recent domestic developments in the United States and Iran appear to represent setbacks for supporters of the nuclear negotiations. However, while the compromises and challenges are real, the concessions agreed upon actually benefit the President more than Congress and strengthen his hand. Russian efforts to derail a deal without appearing to are also proving at best futile and may actually backfire by constraining Israeli options and enhancing Iranian perceptions of their own security. The denouement has only been postponed, however, as there is no imaginable deal that would meet with Republican approval.

On Tuesday this week, the White House announced that the President had reached an agreement with Congressional leaders on a larger role for the American Legislature in the negotiations process with Iran[1]. This comes in the wake of fierce opposition by Republican lawmakers to the framework agreement made in Lausanne on April 7th, including blatant attempts to sabotage the process by freshman Senators, who accused Mr. Obama of “ignoring the people’s representatives” as well as his constitutional responsibility to ‘seek advice’ from the Senate on matters of foreign policy.

The specific terms of the agreement are:

  • The President will submit any final agreement reached with Iran on or before the June 30th deadline to the Senate, which will have 30 days to consider and vote on the proposal without amendments;
  • If a simple majority in the Senate rejects the terms of the agreement, the President may (and would) exercise his veto of that rejection;
  • The Senate would then have to muster a two-thirds majority to override the President’s veto;
  • The same conditions would apply in the case an agreement reached after June 30th, except that the Senate would have 60 days to consider the proposal, and the President would have to advise Congress on developments;
  • Should the negotiations appear in danger of breaching the June 30th deadline; the President can use his authority to extend that deadline by providing Congress with 45 days’ notice.
  • In return, Congress agrees to stop attempting to insert itself into the negotiations themselves. It will have a straight up-or-down vote.


This agreement has been hailed by conservatives in the US and Israel as a victory of Congress over the President. “Obama’s White Flag of Surrender” crowed a headline in Israel Hayom[2]. Mr. Ben-Zvi should live so long; it seems unlikely that Mr. Obama caved in to Republican demands. There is no doubt that Mr. Obama would have preferred to exclude Congress completely from the entire process, but that was never going to be in the cards. Firstly, most of the US sanctions are written into law and therefore not subject to being overridden by executive authority. Secondly, most Americans have expressed discomfort at the idea of Congress having no role whatsoever, though most do not want a leading role for the Legislature.

It is far more likely that the President has listened to the advice of senior Democratic Senators, some of whom have tight races coming up in 2016 and don’t wish to hand the Republicans and easy and obvious platform. Democratic Senators Timothy Kaine (Virginia) and Christopher Coons (Delaware) expressed support for the enhance role of the Senate. Mr. Obama also must have considered the potential for continued interference and outright sabotage by Republicans to be high; by granting them a voice at the end of the process, he has bought himself some peace of mind during the negotiations. And he has conceded very little; because of his veto and the number of Democrats in the Senate, a supermajority against a final agreement is highly improbable.

In the final analysis, the loser in this compromise appears to be Mr. Netanyahu. The Israeli Prime Minister has no pull with the Obama Administration, but a great deal over the Congressional GOP. By renouncing a more active role during negotiations in return for a vote on the final terms, the Congress and by extension Mr. Netanyahu have lost all influence over what those terms will contain. So Mr. Netanyahu can forget about any quid pro quo on the recognition of Israel by the Iranians, which was purely for the consumption of Jewish American voters in the first place[3]. The Israelis will get the final terms no sooner than Congress will, and have no more say in them than the latter institution does.

President Rouhani also has his share of exasperating domestic opposition, but in the more powerful form of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Aki Khamenei. Mr. Khamenei has the final say on any agreement reached with the 5+1 powers, and the cleric has already expressed his disapproval[4]:

  • Sanctions must be lifted immediately, not gradually;
  • No right of inspection of military facilities for the IAEA representatives.

rouhani, khamenei

Much of this is posturing. The Iranians know perfectly well that sanctions aren’t going to be revoked completely and immediately, and certainly not by a Republican-led Congress. And of course no deal will be possible without some degree of intrusiveness in the inspections regime. The Ayatollah is signaling to Rouhani how long his leash is and at the same time signaling to the West that Iran is not (yet) desperate enough for a deal at any price. Within that context, there is ample room for successful bargaining:

  • President Rouhani will insist that some sanctions must be revoked almost immediately if he is expected to sell the deal back home. The US will have some limited leeway in removing US sanctions, but more importantly, the Administration will be able to go through the UN Security Council to ease sanctions by other nations, like the European Union, Russia and China. This will undoubtedly be the formula, as it gives the Iranians much of what they want while shielding American lawmakers from the need to be seen overturning the sanctions regime during an election year;
  • In return, some formula for the inspection of restricted facilities beyond those on an agreed list of sites must be reached. There is no problem with establishing a reasonable notification period to allow the Iranians to secure conventional military assets from “the prying eyes” of the IAEA inspectors: the types of activities they will be searching for leave long-term traces that cannot be removed, or else whose removal is itself evidence of their former presence. Radiation from uranium can be detected in structures and topsoil long after the material is removed; and the sudden demolition of buildings or removal of large quantities of soil is both obvious and highly suspicious. There is no need for a snap or unlimited inspections regime.

Another loser is Russia[5], who sees their influence in the Middle East waning even as the United States becomes progressively less engaged, ISIS notwithstanding. This recovery of strategic flexibility allows the Americans to be more aggressive in Eastern Europe and Ukraine, which is not at all what the Russians want. Additionally, a final agreement opens the door to renewed Western investment in the Iranian petroleum sector as well as full market access to Iranian crude. Though this will not have an immediate impact, it means that the long-term prospect for Russia’s parlous public finances and dwindling foreign exchange reserves looks increasingly grim. The longer oil remains below the Russian budgetary benchmark of USD$100/barrel, the deeper the Russian deficit will be. Putin’s government has already made across the board cuts in everything but military spending, and the ex-Chekista is well aware of the trap the USSR fell into when military spending consumed so much of the budget that even the long-suffering Russians preferred to throw off the Soviet yoke. He does not want to be the next Gorbachev.

The Russians announced this week that they had lifted the suspension on the sale of S-300 air defense systems to Iran. The Iranians had bought 5 batteries of anti-aircraft missiles back in 2007. At the time, the US had protested furiously, since the Bush Administration had still considered bombing as a viable option. Moscow eventually agreed to stop shipment of the equipment in a show of ‘solidarity’ with the UN efforts at non-proliferation. This time around, the State Department’s official position is that the shipment doesn’t represent a breach of sanctions nor is it a concern for the United States. Far from throwing a wrench into the works, which was certainly Mr. Putin’s intention, the S-300’s may actually make a deal more certain: these air defense systems would make a unilateral Israeli strike far more difficult once they were installed and operational. That is undoubtedly why Mr. Netanyahu was upset enough with Moscow to threaten the sale of advanced military equipment to Georgia and Ukraine[6], a headache the Russians neither want nor can ignore. This may be a bluff, however: Israel is interested in maintaining cordial relations with Russia and the S300 is no longer the most advanced air defense system the Russians have. The deliveries may yet be consummated without consequences.


Regardless of the current compromise, opposition to any deal in principle will increase as negotiators come closer to an agreement. The Republican Party, Likud and the House of Saud all see their strategic interests fundamentally challenged by a reintegration of Iran into the international system and a new modus vivendi with the United States. At this point, after years of bloodshed and trillions of dollars wasted, the United States has come to realize that reshaping the Middle East is beyond its power. American interests are sufficiently served by maintaining a balance of power between the Saudis and the Iranians with neither side dominant. The oil will continue to flow unimpeded through the Straits of Hormuz, and the US hopes that a situation reminiscent of the Cold War will develop in the region, a balance of power that will put the lid on military conflict and stabilize the region.

Getting Israel and Saudi Arabia, and Turkey as well, to accept this new arrangement with Iran will be difficult, put it is critical if the US is to manage volatility without enormous and never-ending commitments of troops and treasure. The United States has finally awakened to the fact that it has bigger fish to fry with the growing challenge of Russia and China to allow itself to be immersed forever in the sectarian violence of the Middle East.


Sources and Notes

[1] Karen DeYoung and Mike DeBonis, “Congress and White House strike deal on Iran legislation,” The Washington Post, 14 April 2015

[2] Abraham Ben-Zvi, “Obama’s white flag of surrender,” Israel Hayom, 16 April 2015

[3] Recognition of Israel was never on the table and was never going to be

[4] Guy Taylor, “Ayatollah’s doubts place cloud over Iran nuke deal,” Washington Times, 09 April 2015

[5] Geopolitical Diary, “For a U.S.-Iran Deal, Obstacles Are Surmountable,” Stratfor, 15 April 2015

[6] Amir Rapaport, “Advanced S300 systems – from Russia to Iran,” Israel Defense, 14 April 2015

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