Now Comes the Hard Part on Iran

by Diana Ohlbaum

The painful spectacle of congressional disapproval of the Iran nuclear deal, followed by a presidential veto and an override vote, has been averted. It’s a big win for the White House, whose skillful political work—aided by a well-coordinated and effective grassroots lobbying campaign—brought an even larger margin of victory than most had expected.

But as soon as the giddiness wears off, supporters of the agreement should start planning for the long, hard slog ahead.

It’s safe to say that the accord’s detractors, who have likened the deal to the Munich agreement of 1938, won’t be content to sit back and lick their wounds. With Republican presidential candidates not only competing for media attention and financial backing, but warring over the future direction of their party, there will be multiple incentives to upend and undermine the Iran deal. And there will be no shortage of ways to do so, both inside Congress and outside.

Political Tactics

Indeed, on September 11, a month before the agreement is even slated to enter into effect, the House passed a bill prohibiting the president from lifting economic sanctions as required once the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) certifies that Iran is abiding by its nuclear commitments. Such antics are for publicity value only, because—much like the repeated attempts to repeal Obamacare—they have no chance of enactment. Yet the usually more reasonable chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), has already indicated that he plans to take up a 10-year extension of the Iran Sanctions Act later this year. This may or may not be a direct violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as Tehran claims, but it would certainly be a symbol of bad faith.

Republicans are also exploring legal avenues for unraveling the Iran deal. They have threatened to sue the president for not providing all the documents associated with the agreement, or for not submitting it in the form of a treaty. Although such legal efforts are likely to come to naught, Republicans can still hold other issues hostage and “use every tool at our disposal to stop, slow, and delay this agreement from being fully implemented,” as House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH) threatened after the Senate failed to derail the accord. Senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz (R-TX), citing his opposition to the Iran deal, has already gummed up the works of government by blocking the confirmation of a raft of nominees, including a well-known and widely supported new administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Failing a full-on repeal or legal injunction, detractors can chip away at the Iran accord by retaining or expanding sanctions at the state level. Republican governors are already vowing not to roll back state-level sanctions, despite the deal’s requirement that the United States “actively encourage” officials at the state and local levels to “refrain from actions inconsistent” with the accord. AIPAC, the group that worked hardest to torch the Iran deal, has some of its strongest networks at the grassroots level. It will need to make a choice between using those networks to carry on the fight and repairing its frayed relationships with Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Another concern is that Congress will ratchet up existing sanctions related to Iran’s human rights violations, financing of terrorism, and ballistic missile activities. The JCPOA applies only to nuclear-related sanctions and does not affect restrictions placed for other reasons. Lest there be any ambiguity on that point, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which sets out the terms and procedures for congressional consideration of the agreement, specifically states that “United States sanctions on Iran for terrorism, human rights abuses, and ballistic missiles will remain in place,” and that these issues “are matters critical to ensure justice and the national security of the United States, and should be expeditiously addressed.” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), one of the four Senate Democrats who opposed the deal, plans to introduce new legislation to strengthen these provisions.

Although such additional sanctions may be permissible under the agreement, imposing them preemptively is likely to contribute to a “cycle of defeat,” under which escalating sanctions and military threats drive Iran to believe that only nuclear weapons will provide it with lasting security. This is almost exactly what caused the nuclear agreement with North Korea, brokered by President Bill Clinton in 1994, to fall apart. Although that accord, known as the Agreed Framework, dealt only with nuclear weapons, North Korea continued to develop ballistic missile technology and failed to improve its human rights record. A series of new sanctions and provocations ensued, ultimately leaving the United States far worse off when the nuclear deal collapsed at the end of 2002. To avoid this same fate, the Obama administration will need a new strategy for deterring, thwarting, and countering Iranian support to terrorist groups.

Democrats and Sanctions

One might assume that Democrats who voted in favor of the Iran agreement could be counted on to oppose the tightening of current non-nuclear sanctions or the imposition of new ones. But such confidence would be misplaced.

First of all, many of those who supported the Iran agreement did so with a heavy heart and mixed emotions. They remain genuinely and rightfully concerned about Iran’s (potentially increasing) support for the murderous regime in Syria, provision of weapons and training to Hezbollah, repeated threats against Israel, and appalling abuses against its own people. As a result, these Democrats may be looking for ways to signal that their support for the nuclear agreement does not lessen their commitment to address these other issues. Yet they ought to be mindful that Saudi Arabia, which emerged from the process with a U.S. promise of $1 billion in sophisticated new weapons, has even fewer political rights and civil liberties than Iran, has created a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, and exports the kind of fanatical Wahhabism that feeds Sunni extremist groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Piling on Iran, which even after JCPOA will remain “one of the most sanctioned jurisdictions in the world,” only weakens U.S. influence by revealing the starkness of our double standards.

Second, Democrats who supported the Iran nuclear agreement may find themselves facing a backlash from their constituents, whose support for the deal has declined since July. They may also in some cases have to deal with a primary challenge. If the White House can’t prove that new sanctions would violate the terms of the agreement, it may have difficulty assembling enough votes to sustain a veto.

The stiffest test of all will come with the disputes, ambiguities, miscommunications, and differing interpretations of the JCPOA that are inevitable with any kind of agreement. Some alleged violations may occur as the result of genuine misunderstandings, unintentional errors, or unavoidable delays, while others may reflect Iran’s testing the limits of verification and enforcement, what former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns refers to as “nibbling around the edges.” The United States, along with the IAEA and the rest of the international community, will need to be vigilant and firm in holding Iran to its commitments. But with the level of distrust that persists, and a majority in Congress actually hoping that the agreement will fail and openly looking for ways to kill it, any minor breach will be seized upon as a rationale for the re-imposition of sanctions. Unfortunate statements like those of White House spokesman Josh Earnest, who told reporters that “the military option would be enhanced” by the deal, perpetuate an environment conducive to cynicism, retribution, and eventual break-out.

War and Peace

Ironically, those who rage loudest about “rebuilding the strength and restoring the credibility of the United States” around the world are the ones who would tear down our best hope for achieving it. If the United States becomes perceived as the party that violates the Iran nuclear accord or precipitates its unraveling, we will find ourselves in the worst possible situation: an Iran free to pursue its nuclear ambitions, unconstrained by IAEA supervision or legal agreements, and a United States isolated and scorned, left to apply its ineffectual sanctions on a unilateral basis. War would be at once more likely, and more difficult for the U.S. to wage successfully.

What will ultimately stick in Republicans’ craw is not a failed Iran nuclear accord but a successful one. By any reasonable estimation, the accord will do more to delay Iran’s development of a nuclear capability, for a longer and more reliable period and at a lower financial and human cost, than a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But that’s not really what the opponents of the accord want. They want regime change, and Iran’s nuclear program is only, as in Iraq, a politically expedient rationalization for imposing it by force.

Of course, should Donald Trump or one of the other Republican favorites become our next president, he will have his chance to make that case. But most of them have not likely thought that far ahead. The vote against the Iran nuclear agreement was an easy one, as former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) helpfully reminded his compatriots: when you vote against something you know will happen regardless, you gain the ability to criticize the outcome without bearing any responsibility for shaping it. The deal’s opponents have conveniently managed to avoid laying out a realistic alternative, other than war.

With scant regard for the harmful national security consequences, Republicans may be content to be spoilers on President Obama’s watch. But actually destroying the deal puts the ball back in their own court. Before snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, they ought to think about the world they want to bequeath to Obama’s successor.

Photo: Ted Cruz

Diana Ohlbaum

Diana Ohlbaum is senior strategist and legislative director for foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and chairs the board of the Center for International Policy. She previously served for nearly 20 years as a senior professional staff member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Dr. Ohlbaum holds a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University and a B.A. in Russian studies from Amherst College. Follow her on Twitter: @dohlbaum



  1. Ted Kircher, I hope you have not suffered any health effects from your exposure.

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