A Breakthrough Agreement at Risk; An Unorthodox Approach Might Support It

According to a December 9, 2013 editorial in the New York Times, reports have circulated in Washington recently that Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat, and Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican, are preparing legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran’s remaining exports and strategic industries if, at the end of six months, the interim nuclear agreement signed in Geneva goes nowhere.  The editorial explained both US and Iranian officials have made it clear that such legislation could be fatal to the agreement. The Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told Time and the New York Times during an interview in Tehran on December 7th that “the entire deal is dead” even if the penalties do not take effect for six months.   The editorial’s authors went on to state that similar mischief was afoot in the House of Representatives.  Democratic Majority-Whip Steny Hoyer denied an allegation, reported in the Washington Post, that he was working with Eric Cantor, the Republican Majority Leader, on a resolution that could sharply limit the outlines of a final agreement or call for imposing new sanctions.

The reactions of Members of Congress toward Iran, particularly in light of the concessions made on economic sanctions in exchange for Iran’s promise to moderately cutback on its nuclear activities, were predictable.  The Congress has made it known for some time that is far less understanding than the Obama administration of Iran’s pleas for relief from economic sanctions imposed by the US due to its nuclear efforts.  US diplomats had to appear before Congress just before the Geneva meeting to head-off a Congressional move to impose even harsher economic sanctions on Iran unless Iran froze its nuclear program.  The Members negative positions stem not only from a history of uncongenial relations with Iran, but also from a plethora of detailed information on Iran’s nuclear activities, regularly provided by unofficial and official sources, including the US intelligence community.  They are also aware of hard line comments of senior Iranian leaders in Tehran.

In addition to his warning on further sanctions, Zarif surprisingly has made statements referring to the Obama administraions dfficulties working with Congress on sanctions.  In his December 7th interview, he stated, “We believe that the US government should stick to its words, should remain committed to what it stated in Geneva, both on the paper as well as in the discussions leading to the plan of action.”  He also stated that “. When Secretary Kerry talks to the US Congress, the most conservative constituencies in Iran also hear him and interpret his remarks. So it’s important for everyone to be careful what they say to their constituencies because others are listening and others are drawing their own conclusions.” 

Zarif and senior Iranian officials are astute enough to know, many of them having been educated in the US, that when dealing with the US, ultimately, issues do not center solely on whoever occupies the Oval Office at any given time.  They concern the US government.  The Iranians should be aware that the US system of checks and balances, its government has three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. In the legislative branch, Members of Congress serve as the people’s representatives and oversee what the country does at home and abroad, including the creation of international agreements.  While an agreement with Iran would not result in a formal treaty and not be subject to ratification by the US Senate, the removal of existing economic sanctions would require Congressional approval.  If by some chance, Iran’s got everything it could ever have wanted regarding sanctions in Geneva, it would only be half the battle. 

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in his inaugural address, stated, “To have interactions with Iran, there should be talks based on an equal position, building mutual trust and respect, and reducing enmity.”  However, the US and Iran in fact are not negotiating as equals in all respects.  Their respective governments have two different systems.  For example, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, can issue what amounts to an edict on “heroic flexibility” regarding the Geneva nuclear talks, that the enitre Iranian government must follow.  US President Barack Obama cannot require all branches of government to obey any foreign policy concept he might declare.  

The process of direct negotiation between the US and Iran has been a new and unusual process for the long-time adversaries.  It requires professionalism, great diplomatic acumen, innovation, and mutual support.  The administrations of both Obama and Rouhani want a deal on Iran’s nuclear program and US sanctions.  Issuing warnings to the Obama administration over what the Congress might do is counterintuitive.  It certainly does not make the job of convincing Congress to accept an agreement with Iran, or refrain from passing new legislation on sanctions more difficult. 

Rather than discuss what Obama, Kerry, and the foreign policy apparatus of the US government must do, it might be more constructive for Zarif to consider what he might be able to do in support of the administration’s efforts to lessen sanctions.  Zarif and his superiors have a mutual interest in preventing Congress from legislating any new economic sanctions and encouraging it to remove old ones.  One unorthodox approach might include having Zarif speak with the Congress about sanctions and the nuclear program.  It may build some confidence among the Members in the Geneva process who remain uncertain of Iran’s intent and of the likely outcome of an agreement.  Involving the Congress in the interaction between the US and Iran in this manner might prove crucial to its outcome.  US President Woodrow Wilson learned this the hard way.  Wilson refused to include US Senators among the negotiators accompanying him to the Paris Peace as suggested by his rival, Republican Majority Leader and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Henry Cabot Lodge.  Wilson needed Lodge’s active support to ensure Senate approval of the Treaty of Versailles.  As a result of that “offense”, and Wilson’s refusal to negotiate with Lodge on the treaty, Lodge gave little support to the Treaty of Versailles. In the end, on November 19, 1919, for the first time in its history, the Senate rejected a peace treaty.  It is not publicly known if any Members of Congress have requested to hear from Zarif.  However, the Obama administration might kindly suggest that the Members do so.

If Iran is truly all in on getting an agreement and removing sanctions, it needs to commit to making that a reality.  Mutual support is what is needed.  Whether Zarif would ever appear before Congress in support of the Geneva process is uncertain.  Although Zarif would be supporting the Obama administration’s efforts, it might be believed among his superiors and hardliners in Iran that he was being brought to Capitol Hill to “beg” Congress for sanctions relief.  Hopefully that would not be the thinking in Tehran because having Zarif come to Washington might eventually become a necessity to secure an agreement. 

When bilateral negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program in Geneva began to appear possible, just before Rouhani took office, there was an effort afoot in the US Congress to impose further sanctions on Iran.  Hope was expressed in an August 8, 2013  greatcharlie.com post that such very poorly timed incidents and other encumbrances coming from both sides would be worked through by Kerry and Zarif given their talents.  The threat of sanctions at this juncture represents a real obstacle to the on-going Geneva process.  Yet, as long as cooler heads prevail and some thought is given by both US and Iranian diplomats to how they might provide mutual support for their efforts, such difficulties can also be overcome.

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