GOP Elephants Cast a Shadow on the Negotiations Table

These days, it’s possible for elections in a country thousands of miles away from Iranian borders to have an impact on important issues within Iran — for example, the U.S. midterm elections.

For a year now, the two sides of this negotiation, the U.S. and Iran, have been sitting down across the table from one another to discuss joint issues. Although other players have been involved, for now these two nations are the driving forces behind it all.

Last Tuesday, following the U.S. midterms, Congress fell into the hands of the Republicans, a group that generally opposes Obama’s policies on Iran. The Republicans, whose mascot is the elephant in American politics, have been able to exploit several of the Democratic government’s weaknesses in these elections and, as a result, they have come out on top.

It’s not hard to recall — it was under George Bush Jr.’s Republican government (2000-2008), that talk of war reached Tehran’s ears, and the policies of the reformist government [within Iran] were able to avert that danger. But this election result could have an effect on the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. The two sides have until the third of Azar (Nov. 24) to reach a final deal.

Iran and the Republicans

The history of the GOP and Iran is not that exciting of a tale. On Aug. 6, 1996 (Mordad 14, 1375), severe oil sanctions were imposed on Iran at the behest of Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato; these sanctions also required President Bill Clinton’s signature in order to be carried out. On the basis of D’Amato’s law, any company that invested over $40 million in the Iranian oil or gas industry was subjected to U.S. sanctions. During George Bush’s tenure, that cap was brought down to $20 million. Senator D’Amato even warned European oil companies like ELF and Total about participating in Iranian gas and oil projects.

This process repeated itself throughout all the years power was concentrated in Republican hands, and now the U.S. Democrat-led government has lost its cooperative arm within Congress. Not only will these conditions make the final two years of Obama’s presidency even more difficult than before, it will also have an effect on American foreign policy, particularly in terms of the nuclear negotiations and the two sides’ attempts to reach a final agreement.

Despite the fact that throughout the course of the negotiations, the Obama administration and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry have sought an agreement that does not require congressional approval, the Iranian team is looking for an agreement following which no further sanctions could be imposed on Iran. But it seems that with control of the Senate and House of Representatives falling to the Republicans, this goal will be more difficult to realize, or worse still, new sanctions may be implemented against Tehran.

What Has Happened

This is the first time since 2009 that Republicans are taking control of both houses of Congress. Among the most prominent Republicans in Congress are Sen. McCain, Sen. Bob Corker and Sen. Marco Rubio, all of whom are generally anti-Iran.

John McCain, who ran against Obama as the Republican candidate in the 2008 presidential election, said in one of his televised debates with Obama that in the event that Iran and Israel square off, he would rush to Israel’s aid and not wait for U.N. Security Council permission. Obama’s response was that he would make an effort to cooperate with other nations to increase pressure on Iran to prevent such a war from breaking out.

Bob Corker, an important member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, stated his position most recently in an interview with Fox News. “It looks like we’ve tacitly agreed that they [Iran] will be enriching for commercial purposes down the road …. I think it’s now time for Congress to weigh in because I think people are very concerned that the interim deal becomes the norm.” [Note: This statement is not that recent; it is from November 2013 after the interim deal was signed.]

What Is on the Negotiating Table

Iran and the nations of the P5+1 have until Nov. 24 to come to a final agreement over Iran’s nuclear program. The most important issue at stake here is the number and the generation of Iran’s centrifuges and, on the other side, how the sanctions against Iran will be lifted.

In the Geneva agreement, both sides committed to lifting sanctions in a final deal. However, with the change in Congress’s political composition, it’s not clear what will happen regarding the sanctions. Some of the United States’ unilateral sanctions against Iran can be lifted with the president’s signature, sanctions that it appears the U.S. government is quite inclined to lift. Similarly, according to the U.S. Constitution, the president also has the right to suspend sanctions for a period of 120 days. But considering that Iran is after a long-term deal to lift the sanctions, it is unlikely that such an option would be perceived favorably.

Given that the new Republican-majority Congress will be inaugurated in January, more than ever the Nov. 24 deadline represents a golden opportunity for Iran and the P5+1 to reach a final agreement. Dr. Davoud Hermidas-Bavand [a renowned Iranian political scientist] has told the Iranian Students’ News Agency, “Regarding the unilateral American sanctions against Iran, the U.S. president can lift some of the sanctions passed by Congress by using an executive order to further the interests of his country, however, lifting some of the other American sanctions will require new congressional legislation, which takes time.”

This university professor believes that there is less concern for possible Republican interference with a nuclear deal because they will only come into power in January, well after the announced deadline. “If a deal should be reached,” he says, “the only influence that Congress could wield over the negotiations would be in terms of lifting the sanctions, because Iran believes that all the sanctions should be suspended at the same time, while the Americans believe that some of the sanctions will be more time-consuming to lift. As such, if considerable gains are made at the negotiation table, there is plenty of hope that Congress will not have much influence. However, if the negotiations end without a definitive result, in that case of course Congress would pursue the implementation of further sanctions, which is very worrying for the future of the nuclear negotiations.”

Escalating Tensions

The Iranian news website Fararu reprinted an article by Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, in which she writes, “One area that surely will feel the impact of a GOP-majority Senate is Iran. […] The tension between the administration’s conciliatory approach to Iran and its efforts to deny Congress a voice in nuclear diplomacy may come to a head by Nov. 24, the deadline for the latest round of negotiations concerning Iran’s nuclear program.”* [Note: The second sentence is actually Rubin quoting from the Foreign Policy Initiative:]. The seats won by Republicans could overshadow the results of the nuclear negotiations, unless both sides take advantage of their golden opportunity before Nov. 24.

*Editor’s Note: The second sentence of the quote is Rubin quoting the Foreign Policy Initiative.

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