How Obama Beat Congress on Iran

Despite some vocal opposition, Barack Obama now has enough support in the US senate to ensure the Iran nuclear deal is approved. Domestic manoeuvring and foreign interventions characterise the president's success.

On 2 September, Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski announced her support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between the P5+1 and Iran. Mikulski's backing all but guarantees that the accord will now come into effect as planned. With thirty-four declared supporters in the senate, congressional opponents of the deal will be unable to assemble the votes they would need to pass a veto-proof resolution of disapproval.

The JCPOA has proven to be one of the most controversial diplomatic agreements in American history. Majorities in both houses of congress oppose the accord, and the US public opinion remains deeply divided on its merits. That administration officials have successfully navigated such treacherous political waters will come as a huge relief to supporters of the agreement.

Legislate, Politicise, Circumvent and Partner

Four factors account for the White House's triumph. Chief among these was the administration's adroit manipulation of internal congress mechanics, which lowered the threshold for success. When the president signed the Iran Nuclear Agreement and Review Act (INARA) in April, yielding to congressional demands that any final agreement be submitted to Capitol Hill, the move was widely regarded as a major concession. In exchange for refraining from passing further sanctions whilst the negotiations were on-going, congress would be afforded the right to consider any agreement before it went into effect.

Yet seen in retrospect, INARA represented a victory for the administration. By committing Republicans to a legislative process for approval, the White House was able to silence the vocal minority of legislators who regarded the JCPOA as a full treaty. In doing so, the White House eliminated the need to corral sixty-seven senate votes for ratification, and instead placed the burden upon opponents of the deal to assemble a two-thirds majority - in both houses of congress, not just the senate - in favour of stripping the president of the sanctions-waiver authority needed to implement the agreement. Assembling that level of support proved well beyond the JCPOA’s opponents

The INARA legislation also confirmed that no Republican support would be required to secure the JCPOA's passage. Knowing that the chances of approval would be increased by transforming the Iran vote into one that broke down on party lines, the White House went out of its way to make the debate as partisan as possible.

In a much-publicised speech at American University, President Obama equated opposition to the accord with support for the Iraq war, and played up the notion that rejection of the JCPOA would bring about military conflict, both arguments calculated to appeal to wavering Democrats. This approach was reinforced by a string of local media appearances, especially in 'purple' states where incumbent Democrats were more likely to flirt with opposition in an effort to strengthen their centrist credentials.

Also key was the decision to circumvent congress once the JCPOA was signed. Rather than awaiting the end of the congressional review period, the administration moved swiftly to secure endorsement of the agreement at the United Nations. Passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2231 enabled Secretary of State John Kerry to argue that congressional rejection of the agreement would not only leave America isolated internationally, but be irrational: why refuse to accept the restrictions on Iran's nuclear program if the international sanctions regime was going to unwind in any case?

That line of reasoning infuriated Republicans, who argued that the decision to seek UN authorisation ahead of congressional approval contravened the spirit of INARA. Yet it played well with Democratic centrists, who were more receptive to the dangers of diplomatic isolation.

Lastly, the White House profited greatly from international interventions. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to accept a Republican invitation to address a joint session of congress in March infuriated those Democrats who proved to be the ultimate arbiters of the agreement’s survival. By contrast the interventions by European officials – who engaged in an unusually public level of congressional lobbying in support of the agreement once it was signed – helped reinforce the administration’s claim that world opinion supported its diplomatic efforts.

Passed, But Not Entrenched

The administration’s success reaffirms the continued ability of US administrations to set foreign policy within a contentious and partisan political environment.

At the same time, the degree of political manoeuvring to which the administration was forced to engage in in order to safeguard the JCPOA’s passage, and the party political nature of the support it was able to secure, suggests that the agreement rests upon a less than stable political foundation. The agreement’s fate is therefore the likely to depend, not on the formal congressional vote that will take place later this month, but rather the outcome of the 2016 presidential contest. 



Timothy Stafford

Research Analyst, Proliferation and Nuclear Policy

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