Republicans took control of the Senate in sweeping wins across the country on Tuesday, a shift in power that may not bode well for reaching a deal with Iran over its nuclear program.
Six world powers including the United States are working on a plan to scale back Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for an easing of sanctions. The U.S. and some of its key allies have accused Iran of using atomic energy as a front to develop atomic bombs, a charge Iran denies. A comprehensive deal must be reached by Nov. 24, having missed the original July target.
Newly-named Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who two years ago expressed support for authorizing the use of military force against Iran if it developed nuclear weapons, has more recently called for stricter sanctions against Iran.
“What we ought to do, if we can’t get an acceptable agreement with the Iranians, is tighten the sanctions,” McConnell said on Sunday.
Efforts to do just that were blocked by former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) in February. With Reid handing off control of the Senate to McConnell, that measure may resurface – and possibly even see approval.
The president could potentially veto such a measure. He can also temporarily lift sanctions on other nations by executive order, although it’s up to Congress to permanently lift them through a majority vote.
According to Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, that’s what President Barack Obama’s opponents most fear. He explains one possible scenario in a blog post for Reuters: “Obama’s strategy will persuade the Iranians to accept significant limits to their nuclear program, allow inspectors to roam its nuclear facilities and cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency on compliance — paving the way for a final nuclear deal and permanent sanctions relief for Iran.”
If Iranian officials complied with the new deal, he writes, opponents to President Barack Obama’s plan would be undermined — but remain distrustful.
Republican lawmakers and even some Democrats have accused Obama of overstepping his authority in brokering a deal with Iran.
Senator Mark S. Kirk (R-IL), an outspoken critic of the negotiations, said in October, “Congress will not permit the president to unilaterally unravel Iran sanctions that passed the Senate in a 99 to 0 vote,” a reference to the vote in 2010 that imposed what have become the toughest set of sanctions.
But some argue that doubling down on sanctions against Iran would be counterproductive, especially now that Iranian officials are already at the bargaining table. Elizabeth Rosenberg of the Center for a New American Security and Zachary K. Goldman, the executive director of the Center on Law and Security at N.Y.U. School of Law, put forth this point in a New York Times op-ed on Thursday.
“Tougher United States sanctions at this juncture would nearly eliminate Iran’s remaining commerce with Asia and Europe, exacting a significant financial toll on America’s allies in those regions,” they write. “That could destroy the international coalition that has so successfully isolated Iran, and erode the leverage it derives from presenting a unified front.”
Rosenberg and Goldberg also note that a 25 percent decline in oil prices over the last four months have already begun to sting Iran — and give officials there a sense of how much more their economy could suffer if they fail to strike a deal.
When asked if he has the power to unilaterally relax sanctions and implement an agreement during a press conference on the Republican takeover of Congress, Obama said he doesn’t have authority over all sanctions, and added, “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse.”
“What I want to do is see if in fact, we have a deal,” he said. “If we do have a deal that I have confidence will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and that we can convince the world and the public will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, then, you know, it’ll be time to engage in Congress. And I think that we’ll be able to make a strong argument to Congress that this is the best way for us to avoid a nuclear Iran: that it will be more effective than any other alternatives we might take, including military action.”
Obama added that sanctions should only be lifted once “verifiable mechanisms” are in place to make sure that Iran doesn’t break with its end of the bargain and begin to produce nuclear weapons.
As Iranian militias play a greater role in the U.S. fight against the militant group ISIS just beyond the Iran-Iraq border, some lawmakers suggest Obama might be warming up to Iran even beyond these negotiations are concerned.
“Somehow we are playing footsie with the Iranians and hope they will somehow have an effect on ISIS,” McCain said.
“I believe, on the nuclear issue, we have already given away the store by allowing them the right to enrich and not putting in check both the development of warheads and the means to deliver them. It is this misguided effort to somehow accommodate and get better relations with a country that is spreading disorder and unrest throughout the region,” he added. “They are not our friend. They are our enemy. We are treating them as somebody that we can continue to do business with.”