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November 5, 2014

Can Obama and the Republican Congress Seal an Iran Nuclear Deal?

With the Republicans gaining control of both houses of the U.S. Congress, polarization and partisan gridlock are likely to continue to grip Washington. The grim political outlook has already cast a shadow over nuclear negotiations with Iran, where a diplomatic breakthrough remains within reach as the parties near a November 24 deadline for a comprehensive deal. While the parties have a number of difficult choices left to make, the risks of failing to reach an agreement by the November deadline (or shortly thereafter) are significantly higher than they were in July. Given the landscape of domestic politics in both the U.S. and Iran, there may not be a better chance to ink a durable deal than over the next few weeks.

Since the U.S. and UN powers secured an interim agreement to freeze Iran’s nuclear program last November, President Obama has worked closely with Congressional allies to prevent any new sanctions from passing that would violate that agreement. Republicans in the minority clamored to vote on new Iran sanctions, but their motivations could have been due to politics rather than policy. An affirmative vote on Iran sanctions would have killed the agreement, likely fracturing international unity on the sanctions and potentially pushing the U.S. and Iran toward military confrontation.

Fortunately, Congress held off, enabling us to test Iran’s intentions. As a result, the interim agreement has been an unmitigated success. Iran has capped enrichment at the 5% level, eliminated its stockpile of uranium enriched to the 20% level, and frozen the number of centrifuges it is operating. Further, Iran has enabled daily access to its enrichment facilities, compared with bimonthly inspections before the deal.

However, the future Republican Senate could tip the scales in favor of Congress passing new Iran sanctions. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) sought to avoid such a vote to allow negotiations to proceed. However, with Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as Majority Leader, a vote on new Iran sanctions becomes far more likely – regardless of the outcome of talks. McConnell has pursued a policy of obstruction over the past six years, seeking to deny the President any significant policy achievements and then blaming the President for Washington’s dysfunction. Despite the obvious benefits of a nuclear deal and the dire consequences of failure, McConnell could continue his policy of denying the President a share of any policy wins.

Further, based on statements when the Republicans were in the minority, McConnell would be likely to have the near-full backing of his caucus. All but three Republican Senators signed onto a February letter railing against Reid for blocking a vote on new Iran sanctions, and McConnell himself affirmed that he would push for a vote if a final nuclear agreement doesn’t meet his (near impossible) expectations. As a result, the President might be forced to veto new sanctions and ensure that one-third of the House or Senate block an override of the veto — a highly tenuous but potentially defensible position.

However, there is a key factor working in favor of Republicans holding their fire that didn’t exist before the elections. Now that the Republicans are in control of Congress, their choices are no longer cost free. If they ratchet up sanctions, they will own the consequences: the unraveling of the greatest opportunity to resolve the nuclear impasse and prevent war in decades, and one we may not see again. This could greatly diminish the Republicans’ chances in 2016 presidential elections by further tying them to the war-happy neoconservative camp.

Regardless, the longer the President waits to strike an accord, the weaker his hand will be. Given that the President’s strategy will be to utilize executive authority written into Congressional sanctions legislation to temporarily relieve sanctions in the initial phases of the agreement – and delay a Congressional vote to lift sanctions until the later stages of a deal – the negotiating parties would be wise to frontload as much of the agreement as possible. If both sides show that they are upholding their side of the bargain over time, the harder it will be for Congress or the President’s successor to dismantle what will be a very good deal.

President Rouhani, as well, will face diminishing political prospects without an agreement in the near-term. Rouhani has invested the vast majority of his political capital in securing a nuclear deal, which holds the best likelihood of long-term economic relief for Iran’s sanctions-plagued economy. Rather than open up new domestic political fronts that could jeopardize the Supreme Leader’s support for an agreement, Rouhani has ceded many fights to the hardliners. Thus, while Rouhani has maintained the upper hand on the nuclear issue, hardliners have been able to keep the domestic status quo more or less intact. The amplification of executions and other human rights abuses by the hardline Judiciary appear aimed at embarrassing Rouhani as he reaches out to the outside world and weakening popular support for his administration. The longer Rouhani goes without striking a deal, the more the hardliners will escalate their attacks and the longer it will take him to turn to the domestic agenda that helped get him elected. But if Rouhani succeeds and obtains a nuclear deal, he will strengthen his political clout and diminish the threat of war that has underpinned the securitization of the domestic sphere in Iran.

Fortunately, the high stakes should enable the parties to strike and sell an agreement. If the talks collapse, “escalation would be the name of the game,” as Acting Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman stated recently. Under such a scenario, the U.S. would certainly amplify punishing sanctions on Iran, Iran’s nuclear program would expand in response, and there would be a renewed threat of a costly, counterproductive military conflict when the region is already aflame. However, staving off such dire outcomes and securing the mutual benefits of a deal will not get easier. Both Presidents Obama and Rouhani need to seize the moment before their domestic opponents gain the upper hand.

This article was originally published in Huffington Post.

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