Obama Iran deal could skirt Congress

US president will do all he can to avoid Congress vote on any nuclear pact

For a deal to be struck with Iran, US president Barack Obama must navigate three sets of negotiations. Photograph: Mike Theiler/Reuters

For a deal to be struck with Iran, US president Barack Obama must navigate three sets of negotiations. Photograph: Mike Theiler/Reuters

 

No one knows if United States president Barack Obama’s administration will manage in the next five weeks to strike what many in the White House consider the most important foreign policy deal of his presidency: an accord with Iran that would forestall its ability to make a nuclear weapon. But the White House has made one significant decision: if agreement is reached, Obama will do everything in his power to avoid letting Congress vote on it.

Even while negotiators argue over the number of centrifuges Iran would be allowed to spin and where inspectors could roam, the Iranians have signalled that they would accept, at least temporarily, a “suspension” of the stringent sanctions that have dramatically cut their oil revenues and terminated their banking relationships with the West, according to US and Iranian officials.

The US treasury department, in a study it declined to make public, has concluded Obama has the authority to suspend the vast majority of those sanctions without seeking a vote by Congress, officials say.

But Obama cannot permanently terminate those sanctions. Only Congress can take that step. And even if Democrats held on to the Senate in next month’s midterm elections, Obama’s advisers have concluded they would probably lose such a vote.

Implicit understanding

“We have been clear that initially there would be suspension of any of the US and international sanctions regime, and that the lifting of sanctions will only come when the IAEA verifies that Iran has met serious and substantive benchmarks,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan, referring to the International Atomic Energy Agency. “We must be confident that Iran’s compliance is real and sustainable.”

But many members of Congress see the plan as an effort by the administration to freeze them out, a view shared by some Israeli officials who see a congressional vote as the best way to constrain the kind of deal Obama might strike. Meehan says there “is a role for Congress in our Iran policy” but members of Congress want a role larger than consultation and advice. An agreement between Iran and the countries with which it is negotiating – the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – would not be a formal treaty, and thus would not require a two-thirds vote of the US Senate.

Senate foreign relations committee chairman Sen Robert Menendez said: “If a potential deal does not substantially and effectively dismantle Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons programme I expect Congress will respond. An agreement cannot allow Iran to be a threshold nuclear state.”

Republican senator Mark Kirk, added: “Congress will not permit the president to unilaterally unravel Iran sanctions that passed the Senate in a 99-to-0 vote,” a reference to the 2010 vote that imposed the toughest set of sanctions to date.

Three

sets of negotiations Such declarations have the Obama administration concerned. And they are a reminder that for a deal to be struck with Iran, Obama must navigate three

sets of negotiations.

The first is between Obama’s negotiators and the team led by Mohammad Javad Zarif, the savvy Iranian foreign minister. The second is between Zarif and forces in Tehran that see no advantage in striking a deal, led by many in the Iranian revolutionary guards corps and many of the mullahs. The critical player in that effort is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has reissued specific benchmarks for an accord, including Iran’s eventual expansion of its uranium enrichment programme by nearly tenfold. And the third is between Obama and Congress.

Zarif, in an interview last summer, said that Obama “has a harder job” convincing Congress than Zarif will have selling a deal in Tehran. That may be bluster but may not be entirely wrong. Many details of the negotiations remain cloaked. Lead negotiator Wendy Sherman struck a deal with congressional leaders enabling her to avoid public testimony when negotiations are under way.

But it is clear that along with the fate of Iran’s biggest nuclear sites – Natanz and Fordow, where uranium fuel is enriched, and a heavy-water reactor at Arak that many fear will be able to produce weapons- grade plutonium – the negotiations have focused intently on how sanctions would be suspended. To the Americans the sanctions are their greatest leverage. For many ordinary Iranians they are what this negotiation is all about: a chance to boost the economy, reconnect with the world and end Iran’s status as a pariah state.

For that reason, many think Obama’s best option is to keep the negotiations going if a deal is not reached by the deadline, a possibility both Iranian and Russian officials have floated.

“Between now and 2017, Obama’s goal is to avert an Iranian bomb and avert bombing Iran,” said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “If Congress feels obliged to pass additional sanctions, the best way to do it would be to create a deterrent – basically to say if you recommence activities Iran has halted, here are new sanctions.”

Asked about the story last night White House spokesman Eric Schultz said, “This is an issue where we talk to congress intensively.”

Pressed on the question of whether the administration believes there are certain actions they can take regarding suspension or elimination of some sanctions without congressional action, Schultz added: “the notion that we are trying to go around Congress on this is preposterous.”

But he said: “It’s way too early to speculate on which sanctions will require legislative versus executive action to suspend or lift.”

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