Yesterday after seeing the news (Jonathan Weisman and Peter Baker, "Obama Yields, Allowing Congress Say on Iran Nuclear Deal") of Obama's about-face on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Iran sanctions review bill I said to a coworker, the only one in a office of more than a dozen people who I know at least keeps an eye on the headlines, "This guy is even weaker than I thought."
What other conclusion can we draw? Obama and Kerry had been promising to fight to the last gasp any encroachment by the Senate on the administration's agreement with Iran on its nuclear program only to meekly acquiesce to a Congressional role after a vote count revealed overwhelming Democratic support for Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Corker's draft legislation.
But this morning I think differently -- not that Team Obama is any stronger, but that Team Obama clearly won this round by its tactical retreat. A protracted fight over a veto of a sanctions review bill would have revealed a president without a party and accentuated Obama's lame duckness, at the same time undercutting negotiations on a final agreement in the remaining two months of the P5+1 talks in Switzerland. As Weisman and Baker point out:
White House officials blitzed Congress in the days after the framework of a nuclear deal was announced, making 130 phone calls to lawmakers, but quickly came to the conclusion that the legislation could not be blocked altogether.
Moreover, officials increasingly worried that an unresolved fight could torpedo the next phase of negotiations with Iran.
“Having this lingering uncertainty about whether we could deliver on our side of the deal was probably a deal killer,” said a senior administration official, who asked for anonymity to describe internal deliberations.No, Obama won this one. The sanctions review period was cut in half from 60 days to 30 (though after the time for a presidential veto and Congressional response is added, it comes to 52 days) and the White House does not have to certify every 90 days that Iran is not sponsoring terrorism. In the end, sometime in July, Congress will get to vote on the nuclear deal. A majority will vote against lifting sanctions. Obama will veto, and he will only need 34 Democrats in the Senate to maintain that veto, something I think he will be able to do:
As Congress considers any accord on a very short timetable, it would essentially be able to vote on an eventual end to sanctions, and then later take up the issue depending on whether Iran has met its own obligations. But if it rejected the agreement, Mr. Obama could veto that legislation — and it would take only 34 senators to sustain the veto, meaning that Mr. Obama could lose upward of a dozen Democratic senators and still prevail.Proof that Obama got the best of the deal is the testy Congressional insistence that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee got everything it originally intended, which is clearly not the case:
White House officials insisted they extracted crucial last-minute concessions. Republicans — and many Democrats — said the president simply got overrun.
“We’re involved here. We have to be involved here,” said Senator Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, the committee’s ranking Democrat, who served as a bridge between the White House and Republicans as they negotiated changes in the days before the committee’s vote on Tuesday. “Only Congress can change or permanently modify the sanctions regime.”
“We’ve gone from a piece of legislation that the president would veto to a piece of legislation that’s undergone substantial revision such that it’s now in the form of a compromise that the president would be willing to sign,” Mr. Earnest said. “That would certainly be an improvement.”
Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and the committee’s chairman, had a far different interpretation. As late as 11:30 a.m., in a classified briefing at the Capitol, Mr. Kerry was urging senators to oppose the bill. The “change occurred when they saw how many senators were going to vote for this, and only when that occurred,” Mr. Corker said.
Mr. Cardin said that the “fundamental provisions” of the legislation had not changed.An important point to weigh here is that Obama would not have made this tactical retreat unless he had vetted it with his Iranian counterparts. The mild response by President Rouhani to the 19-0 Senate Foreign Relations vote shows that the Iranians can live with the bill and that the P5+1 talks will move along to a final agreement.
This does not mean that Obama will be able to deliver a final agreement even if he can maintain a veto of Congressional obstruction. Congress is controlled by the Saudi and Israeli interests. How else to explain the absurd statement by Tom Cotton?
The agreement “puts Iran, the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism, on the path to a nuclear weapon,” said Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, as he emerged from the briefing. “Whether that’s a matter of months or a matter of years, that’s a dangerous outcome not just to United States and allies like Israel but to the entire world.”But the end game here appears to be isolation of Congress and its Saudi and Israeli paymasters from the rest of the world. As the Gray Lady makes clear in an unsigned editorial today, "A Reckless Act in the Senate on Iran":
Mr. Obama’s acquiescence might be a tactical move. He could veto the congressional vote on the final agreement, which is supposed to be concluded by the June 30 deadline, rather than expending political capital in vetoing this measure if it were to pass both chambers of Congress. But the Senate committee’s action puts him in an weakened position as the only leader involved in the negotiations who may not be permitted to fully honor commitments that were made.
The nuclear deal is the product of a multinational negotiation with Iran conducted by the United States, France, Britain, China, Germany and Russia. In no other country has a legislative body demanded the right to block the agreement. Even if Congress barred Mr. Obama from waiving American sanctions, the European Union and the United Nations Security Council could lift the sanctions they imposed, thus undercutting the American decision.This is the bottom line: Unless Obama gets cold feet and kills the talks in the next two months, an international agreement on Iran's nuclear program will be concluded; at which time, even if Congress can prevent the U.S. from ratifying the agreement, it will not be able to block the rest of the world from doing business with the Islamic Republic.
That is why I think it is a pretty safe bet that Israel and al-Saud will gin up some sort of attack on Iran.