Foreign policy - apart from scaremongering about Ebola and terrorism - was not a major issue in U.S. midterm elections. But the imminent Republican takeover of the Senate could impact whether the international community and Iran agree to a landmark deal in talks that are nearing a November 24 deadline.
Iran is being asked to put long-term limitations on its nuclear activities in return for relief of nuclear-related sanctions. While President Barack Obama can provide that relief on a short-term basis through the use of executive orders and presidential waivers, ultimately Congress would be asked to repeal some sanctions and to allow a key piece of legislation - the Iran Sanctions Act - to expire at the end of 2016.
At this juncture, it isn’t clear what priority incoming majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), will give to the Iran issue. Two years ago, he expressed support for authorizing the use of force against Iran if it developed nuclear weapons.
Other senators, especially Mark Kirk (R-Ill) and Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), have sponsored legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran if no nuclear deal is reached by an unspecified date. On Sunday, McConnell was quoted as saying that "what we ought to do, if we can’t get an acceptable agreement with the Iranians, is tighten the sanctions.”
In the past, Democratic leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and the Democratic chairmen of other key committees, were able to fend off new Iran sanctions bills that would have disrupted nuclear negotiations. Menendez, in the end, followed party discipline but may feel freer to oppose the White House more aggressively with the Republicans in charge.
Iran monitors election
Iranian officials, who follow U.S. politics much more closely than most Americans follow Iranian internal deliberations, have probably already factored in a GOP victory, which had been widely predicted.
An Iranian negotiator, who communicated with VOA on condition that he not be named, said that in the event of a deal, “we expect the government of the U.S. to deliver, and we do not interfere in the internal politics of the U.S.” However, the negotiator added that “personally, as an observer of U.S. politics, I have my concerns about the ability of the U.S. team to negotiate seriously now. I am not as concerned about implementation once an agreement is reached.”
Iranians will be monitoring Congressional statements carefully in the weeks ahead for clues about how a Republican-led Senate would react to a possible deal. Much will depend on the nature of any agreement reached in the talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (P5+1).
To keep Congress on board, the Obama administration has been consulting extensively with key members. It is arguing that a deal that closes off all likely pathways to a nuclear weapon is better than an alternative that permits Iran to resume enriching uranium to levels close to weapons grade - a scenario that could lead to pre-emptive U.S. military action in a region already in flames.
Many members of Congress - indeed administration officials, too -- would prefer a deal that eliminates Iran’s enrichment program altogether and forces it to dismantle centrifuges and other infrastructure. Iran rejects this but apparently is willing to accept a combination of restrictions that would reduce the output of its operating centrifuges and send any stockpile of low-enriched uranium produced to Russia for conversion into fuel for civilian reactors.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, President Obama said that the negotiations so far had been “constructive” and that the P5+1 had presented a framework that would allow the Iranians “to meet their peaceful energy needs.” Obama said he wasn’t sure “whether they can manage to say yes,” noting that Iran - like the U.S. - has its own politics, a reference to hard-line opposition in Tehran to nuclear concessions and improved relations with the U.S.
A high-level U.S. team, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, will be meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and European Union negotiator Catherine Ashton in Oman this weekend to try to try to finalize key elements of an agreement.
Optimism about the talks had risen in recent days, with officials on all sides reporting progress on some of the most contentious issues. Some U.S. experts, such as Robert Einhorn, a former negotiator who is now at the Brookings Institution, have said that they doubt an agreement will be completed by November 24 but suggest that it is possible that Iran and the P5+1 can “reach agreement on the key parameters of a deal and ... take several more months to flesh out the parameters.”
With the Republicans due to take control of the Senate in January, negotiators may be further incentivized to conclude an agreement before the end of the year. At the same time, the Iranians are likely to stiffen demands for a rapid removal of U.N. sanctions, which provided the basis for many other countries’ economic penalties, and for other U.S. measures permitting Iran to return to the international financial system.
Administration officials have stressed that they have sufficient authority to proceed and that Congress will not get an up-or-down vote on any deal. Obama also retains veto power and the Republicans did not win enough seats to override a veto of any new sanctions.
On Wednesday, he said that if “we do have a deal that I have confidence will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon... I think that we’ll be able to make a strong argument to Congress that this is the best way for us to avoid a nuclear Iran, that it will be more effective than any other alternatives we might take, including military action.”
With polls showing that the American electorate is unhappy with both Obama and the Congress, each side has pledged to try to work with the other where possible to achieve consensus on issues of importance to the nation.
A long-term deal that keeps Iran from developing nuclear weapons would be profoundly in U.S. national interests. Hopefully, McConnell will focus his obstructive energies on other areas and allow the president to carry out his constitutional responsibility to chart U.S. foreign policy.
Barbara Slavinis a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.
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