US Elections Speeds Up Iran Negotiations


The Iran nuclear talks might be impacted by the results of the US mid-term congressional elections, which have resulted in the Republican Party’s control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Although the final results of these elections are not out yet as of this writing, the mere fact that the Republican Party has picked up at least seven seats in the Senate represents a major setback for President Barack Obama and is bound to weaken his authority during the last two years of his presidency in 2015 and 2016.

But, since the new Republican-controlled Senate does not convene until January, 2015, the White House may now find an added reason to conclude a nuclear agreement with Iran by the November 24 deadline, thus preempting a formidable Congressional opposition. Under the US Constitution, Article II, the US President has the authority to make international agreements and do so by bypassing the approval of Senate as called for in the Constitution’s “treaty clause.” Already, there are reports in the US media that the Obama administration intends to enter into an agreement with Iran without seeking the Congressional approval, thus prompting vocal calls by numerous members of US Congress, including through bi-partisan letters to the White House, requesting an organic role for the Congress in any Iran deal. Although definitely a setback for the Democratic Party and Obama’s presidency in terms of internal US politics, it is far from clear that the Republicans’ congressional victory will have much impact on the US’s conduct of foreign policy. After all, the US history is rife with examples of presidents signing foreign agreements irrespective of opposition by Congress controlled by the opposition party. Recent examples include the Reagan administration and the Clinton administration, sufficiently close to the current administration to serve as relevant policy decisions. Not only that, the Republican Party is split on Iran and there is no consensus on both issues of US-Iran connections in Iraq (against the ISIS threat) and the nuclear issue. Last June, Republican senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain openly clashed on Iran, with Graham suggesting that US and Iran should cooperate to quell rising sectarian violence in Iraq.

One reason why the US election results may spur the White House into added efforts to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran is that the Republican senators led by Mitch McConnell (of Kentucky) might introduce legislation that would call on the president to integrate the lawmakers in the Iran negotiation process. The new head of Senate Foreign Relations Committee will be Bob Corker (of Tennessee), who might inherit the pending anti-Iran legislation sponsored by his predecessor, Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey). Indeed, this points at one of the new complexities introduced by the US election results, that is, the distinct possibility that in the absence of cordial White House-Congress relations in the near future, Congress might pass new legislation preventing the lifting of some Iran sanctions and or imposing other restrictions on White House measures aimed at normalizing relations with Iran. Certainly, this serves as a potential leverage for the pro-Israel lawmakers and lobbyists in Washington, indirectly affecting the White House’s political will with respect to a potential deal with Iran. But even this might motivate the White House to strike a deal with Iran in the next few weeks and thus present the Congress with a scenario that would be difficult to modify, let alone suspend or terminate.

Lest we forget, in the recent past the Democrats initiated some of the most hawkish anti-Iran initiatives in US Congress and, therefore, it would be a mistake to regard the Republicans’ victory as a “game-changer” with respect to Iran. Senator Corker might well engage in some tit-for-tat bargaining with Obama on such foreign policy issues as foreign trade and it is not at all a foregone conclusion that he will lead a spirited challenge to an Iran deal. Any such successful challenge would require the cooperation of Democrats, who are also split on the Iran nuclear issue. Chances are the Republicans will push for an observer group on the Iran talks — that may be too late if a deal is inked by the November deadline. By the same token, the absence of a deal by November and or the talks’ extension into 2015 will likely have adverse effects on the White House’s handling of the issue, by virtue of the pro-Israel lobbyists’ intended effort to trigger a united congressional opposition to any Iran deal, something which has been absent so far. Many Republican senators are on record opposing any Iran deal that falls short of dismantling Iran’s uranium enrichment program, raising the prospect of new sanctions bill without the presidential “waiver authority,” i.e., a new version of the Menendez-Kirk Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act of 2013, which targeted additional sectors of Iranian economy. From Iran’s vantage point, therefore, any future deal with the US is problematic insofar as the White House’s ability to deliver the promised sanctions relief is concerned. Bypassing Congress by the White House now rather than in the near future therefore makes a lot of sense, thus adding a new sense of urgency to the present on-going talks.

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Ph.D. is an Iranian-American political scientist and author specializing in Iran’s foreign and nuclear affairs, and author of several books.

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