The debate over Iran is far from over in Washington
The verdict is in and the US Congress did not have a say after all. It was a big fuss for nothing: 59 days of a hot Iranian summer in Washington packed with millions of dollars and countless speeches. In the end, US President Barack Obama scored a victory by merely standing his ground on the nuclear deal with Iran.
Beneath all the arguments over eight weeks, the only motivational question on both sides of the political aisle was whether Iran should be engaged or perpetually antagonised. It was not about enriched uranium or centrifuges; it was about whether the United States should recognise Iran as a regional power, despite its behaviour.
Republican leaders had nine days after a lengthy summer recess to make their point ahead of a September 17th deadline. They formulated a strategy to speed the disapproval resolution through the House of Representatives before crashing into the Democrats’ threat of a filibuster in the Senate. But right-wing attacks on House leader John Boehner derailed the plan.
The measure to stop the agreement had to pass both houses of Congress before being sent to Obama, who had promised to veto it. Four out of 44 Democratic senators and 25 out of 188 Democratic House members defied the White House, but 61 votes are required to stop a filibuster in the 100-member Senate.
Obama had battled on the Iranian issue with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu — via Republicans in Congress — since November 2013, when the interim agreement between the P5+1 and Iran was signed three months into Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s administration.
The fight became ugly earlier this year. An open letter to Iranian leaders sent on March 9th by 47 Republican senators was seen as an insult to the White House. Then, Republicans invited Netanyahu to address Congress without informing the administration. Obama responded by vowing to veto any disapproval by Congress and circulating a draft ratifying the deal in the UN Security Council before distributing copies of the deal to Congress.
Obama was invested personally in the nuclear deal and reached out to Democrats in Congress like never before. An in-depth communication plan was created by the White House and Obama galvanised the liberal base to rescue an anti-war president. The influential left-wing organisation MoveOn.org pledged to withhold campaign contributions from Democrats who did not support the deal.
The pro-Israel lobby, American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which had tried not to pick a fight with the Obama White House for six years, opted to utilise its resources to defeat Obama’s main foreign policy priority, spending more than $30 million in a massive campaign to pressure Democratic voters in Congress, mainly Jewish members or members with large Jewish constituencies, to abandon the nuclear deal.
After decades of claiming to be working a bipartisan agenda, AIPAC became entangled in a partisan fight. In the end, 19 of 28 Jewish members of Congress, all Democrats, supported the deal. But the damage left by Netanyahu and AIPAC on the strained US-Israeli relationship and the divisiveness of the Jewish-American community will last beyond the vote. Some of AIPAC’s myth of invincibility has vanished on the heels of the Iran vote in Congress.
The Iran nuclear deal is the new Obamacare for Republicans and they will keep trying to undermine it. The bulk of the executive orders that will be released by the Obama administration in the coming months concern the activities of non-US companies and banks dealing with Iran. The issue of US investment in Iran was never on the table. Rather, it is about the United States letting other countries do business in Iran without being punished by the US. Executive orders do not require congressional approval.
Republican members of Congress will continue to be creative in proposing sanctions that could circumvent the nuclear deal. Easing sanctions related to the Iranian nuclear programme while sustaining or expanding those related to terrorism and human rights will be a balancing act and one that the next administration — especially if it is a Republican one — could use to put pressure on Iran. The prevailing concern is that once European countries become more involved in doing business with Iran, they will have less motivation to pressure Tehran on nuclear inspection. The United States cannot act unilaterally. This is the reality the next US president will face during the first month in office, when US congressional sanctions on Iran expire in January 2017.
The Iran deal is meant to be a key part of Obama’s foreign policy legacy. It is a gamble that has the potential to be a travesty. The legacy of the Iran deal largely rests on what the next US president will do and how the Iranians will react. The 2016 US presidential campaigns, which already are under way, and the apparent readiness of the pro-Israel lobby to continue the fight ensure that the debate over the Iran deal is far from over in Washington.