President Obama is hoping to achieve at least one foreign policy goal with the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. However, Congress could really ruin his plan.
On Thursday, in Lausanne, leading Republican politicians reacted with a mixture of alarm and restraint to the agreed contract for the prevention of the Iranian nuclear weapons program. “It is important that we wait to see the specific details of today’s announcement,” advised Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee. “Neville Chamberlain got a better deal from Adolf Hitler,” concluded his colleague Mark Kirk. Even the ultraconservative TV host Bill O’Reilly of Fox News — a catalyst of the sensitivities of the American right-wing party — was conciliatory: “The point is, you don’t want a war with Iran […] The unintended consequences will set the world aflame so if you can get something that’s decent, you give it a shot.”
President Barack Obama must try to prevent this skeptical and cautious attitude among his political opponents from turning into open hostility over the next few weeks because two proposed legislative procedures in the Republican-led House of Representatives could ruin the agreement with Tehran. This would likely also thwart Obama’s last chance to add to his legacy as the first black U.S. President to score an important foreign policy success.
Congress Wants to Have a Say
Since 2013, there is a draft legislation bill in the Senate (proposed by the aforementioned Sen. Kirk and his Democratic colleague, Robert Menendez), which could exacerbate the economic and political sanctions against Iran or even render a relaxation of these sanctions impossible. At the end of January, they presented this Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015 in a revised format. The draft dictates that the president is required to present every internationally negotiated agreement and every decision to extend diplomatic negotiations to Congress within five days. Furthermore, the president should only allow sanctions against Iran to be nullified once he has presented a report that explains why such a concession would be in the national interest of the United States. This law would also impose new sanctions against high Iranian regime representatives, who — along with their family members — are accused of distributing weapons of mass destruction and supporting terrorism.
At first glance, these guidelines are not unreasonable; however, such regulations would make negotiations with Tehran (as well as with the governments in China, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Russia) very difficult. Such conversations are typically only successful when they are able to take place in private and without interjections from various members of parliament. It would also not be advised for the White House to publicly announce how its treatment of the sanctions would fit into its negotiating tactics; no poker player lays his cards on the table before he has played his hand.
Until now, Obama has always indicated that he wants to block the Kirk-Menendez proposed legislation with a veto. Therefore, the 54 Republicans in the Senate require at least 13 Democrats in order to override such a veto. Whether a concrete agreement can be reached will depend on the eight Democrats and whether they can find another five members who support the proposed legislation and are thereby ready to humiliate the president of their own party.
This is most unlikely, and this is mainly because Menendez has recently relaxed his role in the Senate committee with regards to foreign policy following an accusation by the Justice Department on suspicion of corruption and abuse of his position. The leading Democrat in matters of foreign policy is now Benjamin Cardin. He is conciliatory and has always remained on the side of the White House.
Strangely enough, for Obama, the positive results of a party scandal will also have an impact on the second legislative proposal with regards to the situation with Iran. The Iran Nuclear Agreement Act of 2015 showed that Congress has 60 days to either approve or reject the agreement. Cardin represents Menendez in this venture also, and he will do everything possible to avoid the embarrassment of Obama’s rejection in Congress.