As talks between U.S.-led global negotiators and Iran over its nuclear program resume this week in Geneva, the most welcome shift on the Iranian nuclear front may be occurring thousands of miles away in Washington.
There, in the aftermath of November’s congressional elections that reflected a broad public repudiation of President Barack Obama, both parties in Congress are signaling that they will assert themselves more forcefully in connection with the talks. Lawmakers will pressure the administration to not let U.S. negotiating positions erode further, and they may even try to block what they’d consider a bad deal – one, for instance, that leaves Iran just months away from nuclear weaponry.
The Congressional push could presage a dramatic confrontation between the administration and Congress, particularly if the former sticks with its plans to craft a permanent nuclear deal in such a way that it can sidestep Congress and unilaterally relax the sanctions that have severely damaged Iran’s economy.
Congressional assertiveness reflects both growing dismay over U.S. negotiating that has given Tehran big concessions without getting much in return, and Democratic willingness to confront their lame-duck president in his final two years.
On Capitol Hill, the bipartisan push takes various forms. Most strikingly, the 2015 funding bill that lawmakers sent Obama, which he plans to sign, will establish what the Times of Israel called “unprecedented levels of congressional oversight” over Iranian compliance with the short-term deal of November 2013 between Iran and the P5+1 – the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany.
The bill requires the administration to report to Congress every 30 days on Iran’s compliance with that deal, any significant changes to its nuclear program and “breakout time” for nuclear weaponry, any significant changes in its ballistics missile development and acquisition program, and the state of inspection and verification measures. Those requirements will stay in place until the September 30 end of fiscal year 2015, even if negotiators craft another deal to supplant the short-term one.
Meanwhile, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who will give up his chairmanship in January because Republicans regained control of the Senate last month, signaled his own break with the administration’s negotiating posture this month.
“[F]or over one year,” Menendez said at a Dec. 3 hearing on “Dismantling Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program,” “we remain trapped in the same fruitless, cyclical narrative which has us conceding our positions – transforming the Arak [heavy water] reactor rather than dismantling it; converting [the] Fordow [nuclear site] for some alternate use, rather than closing it; and disconnecting [uranium] centrifuges, rather than destroying them. And – perhaps more significantly – Iran isn’t budging on full access to questionable sites and the duration of the agreement.”
“Right now,” he continued in a statement that received strong support from the Weekly Standard, which is influential in Republican circles, “we are playing right into the Iranian narrative, so while they have maximized their demands at the negotiating table, we have minimized ours, with no consequences. This is a worst-case scenario, is extremely dangerous for global nonproliferation imperatives and for regional stability, and could leave Iran as a nuclear threshold state.”
Meanwhile, other recent developments on the Iranian nuclear front will further fuel Congress’ fire. For starters, negotiators missed a Nov. 24 deadline to craft a permanent deal, opting instead to extend the talks for another seven months. That’s the second time Washington agreed to extend the talks rather than abandon them in favor of stronger sanctions, the first coming in July when the short-term deal was supposed to expire.
More significantly, Washington accused Tehran this month of violating U.N. restrictions by trying to buy equipment for its reactor at Arak, through which it could produce plutonium for a nuclear weapon, Foreign Policy magazine reported. Thus, despite previous pledges by senior U.S. officials to force Iran to dismantle Arak, Tehran is scouring the global market to expand it.
With negotiators still far apart and fears growing among Iran experts that a desperate administration will cut a bad deal, critics of the U.S. posture are turning to Congress as a last line of defense against a bad deal.
In the weeks to come, look for Congress to seriously consider imposing a strict deadline for the talks, establishing “sanctions-in-waiting” that would take affect if talks collapse, limiting Obama’s authority to lift sanctions, and forcing the administration to bring a final deal to Congress for approval.
In an environment of presidential weakness and congressional skepticism, Obama may even be hard-pressed to prevent Congress from adopting such legislation with veto-proof majorities in both chambers.
Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.