In the late 80s I was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Organizations in Vienna, which included the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Even then the Iranians were known to be working toward a bomb — and stonewalling the IAEA’s inspectors. They have been building—and stonewalling — ever since. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration in recent years has been enabling rather than thwarting the Iranians’ deceptions.
But this week reason and common sense, like spring, came back to Washington. In a surprise, the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee voted 19 – 0 to hold an up or down vote in both Houses of Congress on any Iran nuclear agreement approved by the Obama team. The full Senate seems sure to confirm the committee vote — so much so that the formerly hostile White House suddenly announced that the President could sign it after all. This development is a pill the Iranians will find it hard to swallow. Already they are objecting to any role for the U.S. Congress.
The Iranians have good cause to be upset. Once the Congress got involved — which is the pesky way these democratically elected representatives tend to do, regardless of who is President — it was fated that the vague, mutually contested “framework” described so far would be subjected to thorough and public scrutiny. It cannot be assumed that the Senate lacks a veto-proof supermajority to oppose a bad agreement in the end.
What the unanimous Committee vote in the Senate also shows is the diplomatic skill — the hidden hand — of Chairman Bob Corker, of Tennessee. He turns out to be a better negotiator than John Kerry, a one-time Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman himself. Mr. Corker did not join in Sen. Tom Cotton’s letter from 47 Republican senators to the Iranian government. Instead he kept lines open to the White House, and, more importantly, to such disgruntled Democratic senators as Menendez of New Jersey, Cardin of Maryland and Schumer of New York. In the end, Sen. Corker’s behind-the-scenes statecraft in Congress exposed the weak position of the President in the current Senate.
Granted, it is going to be an “agreement,” not a “treaty” that is supposed to be completed and come to the Congress at the end of June. But that is mainly a terminological distinction, like not calling a war a “war.” The Congress, the media and the people are going to see it as a binding commitment and take a Congressional resolution of approval or disapproval very seriously. Unless there is a wholesale turnabout in the terms described so far (for example, the Iranian refusal to let IAEA inspectors into their military reactors), the agreement could well disintegrate. Publicly the Iranians are insisting repeatedly that all sanctions be removed as soon an agreement is signed.
But it’s too late. Even a strong willed President who likes to issue Executive Orders is not going to ease past Congressional clearance now. And it also seems clear that the Democratic minority in both houses will split if he forces them to choose between loyalty to him and their constituents.
Other things could happen. The President could just ignore the current process, lift sanctions “temporarily” (which would be like breaching a dam “temporarily”) and watch other countries rush in to provide Iran anything it wants. This would apply the old Machiavellian principle that it is better to ask forgiveness than permission. But public and Congressional forgiveness would be unlikely in such a case. No, the political pressure is now on the White House to reach a more defensible and precise agreement with Iran — or to give up. The option is not war, as the White House has previously warned, but tougher sanctions.
What Corker, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and the Senate Leadership have achieved meanwhile is probably the most positive Republican advance in the current session. And they have done it without partisan histrionics. There probably still is a pro-defense center in America and they have found it.
Meanwhile, we make a mistake by imagining that the only political pressures are on the US. The young population of Iran is eager to move on from confrontation with the West. Failure of the mullahs to deliver a deal, one way (build the nukes) or another (don’t build the nukes), could well lead to further economic strains and discontent. Iran is an authoritarian theocracy, but an unhappy public is not the way to maintain it long term.
Politics is not always just “about us.”