by Ali Gharib
One of the most striking things about the congressional discourse about the Iran talks had been the overwrought denunciations of diplomacy by Republicans. You don’t have to look hard. Mark Kirk, the Illinois senator, takes every chance to compare diplomacy with Iran to the Munich agreement that handed the Sudetenland over to Hitler. He recently said the framework agreement announced this month was worse than Munich—and that it would lead inevitably to an Israeli attack on Iran and/or nuclear war (it’s unclear how, if Israel has the means to stop Iran’s nuclear program, there would still be nuclear war, but never mind).
Not to be outdone, the pugnacious and history-challenged freshman Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) said that comparing Obama to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who inked the Munich agreement, was too hard on Chamberlain (Cotton also said a deal would lead to nuclear war in the Middle East). It might be easy to dismiss these sorts of statements as the actions of a few isolated politicians, but then you remember that 46 of Cotton’s Republican Senate colleagues signed onto his foolish letter to the Iranian leadership.
So how is it that the administration ended up striking a deal to give Congress a say on the nuclear accord being negotiated with Tehran? Doesn’t this amount, in effect, to congressional Republicans appeasing Neville Chamberlain? After all, the revisions to the Corker-Menendez bill arose out of a compromise—exactly the notion congressional hawks seem not to understand about the talks with Iran themselves. Neither side got exactly what it wanted, but both sides got something they could support. While Congress got their demand that it be given some say on a final nuke deal, the administration, as Yishai Schwartz pointed out, got several poison pills in the original bill either removed or softened and gained legitimacy for its push to limit Congress’s role.
As the details emerged, the administration said that it wasn’t “particularly thrilled“ with the Senate compromise, but that it could live with the results. And indeed the deal poses some risks. For example, the bill retains a provision that bars Obama from waiving sanctions during a congressional review period, though that period was reduced from 60 to a maximum of 52 days. Proponents of the bill have insisted that the waiver ban won’t affect ongoing negotiations, but it almost certainly will because it will delay the kind of early sanctions relief that Tehran has made its top priority. Ironically, such a delay may actually strengthen Iran’s hand in the upcoming talks, as U.S. negotiators may now be expected by both Tehran and Washington’s P5+1 partners to give something in return.
However, we’re not out of the proverbial woods just yet. Congress is surely going to try to meddle in other ways. The silly season is after all already in full swing. One GOP presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), held off on introducing an amendment to require Iran to recognize Israel in a final deal but suggested he might bring it up when the bill reaches the floor. And other Republican lawmakers have likewise said that they’re not done trying to kill diplomacy.
Perhaps the most comic statement to come out of a Republican in the past few days emerged from House Speaker John Boehner. After returning from the Middle East, Boehner said the framework agreement was a “deal with the devil.” The devil! More hilariously, Boehner pushed back on the notion that he was warmongering by saying that there was indeed an agreement with Iran that would be good enough for him. Got that? You can make a deal with the pure embodiment of evil, but it just has to be a good enough deal.
If that’s the kind of opposition a deal with Iran will face in Congress, what hope is there? Well, there is some. For one, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has vowed to keep her caucus together to defend a final agreement, and she only needs to keep 145 of her Democrats on board—the one-third-plus-one threshold that’s necessary, under the bill as approved by the Foreign Relations Committee, to sustain a presidential veto of any deal-killing measure. In the Senate, that looks to be a taller order, but keeping 34 Democrats in check could still work.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the crowning achievement of this compromise for the Obama administration: it has positioned itself to keep Congress from scuttling an Iran deal so long as it can keep one-third-plus-one votes in either chamber in line. That may, in the end, may make all the difference. But the Corker-Menendez bill still needs to get through both full houses unscathed for that to happen. Whether Republicans can honor their committee leadership’s Munich-like compromise with evil remains to be seen. Stay tuned for more drama.