MICHAEL WILNER/On Iran, Congress plays its hand with a deadline of its own


On Iran, Congress plays its hand with a deadline of its own

WASHINGTON — Several veto threats later, US President Barack Obama has succeeded in buying time for his diplomats to negotiate a political framework with Iran concerning its nuclear program— 52 days, to be exact.

From March 24 onwards, at least ten Democratic senators have committed their support for a bill that the president opposes: Legislation that will trigger new sanctions on Iran if international talks fail to reach a comprehensive accord. Unless that support frays, their commitments guarantee Senate passage of a bill with a minimum of 62 votes.

How did we get here? Several factors converged at once: Infighting among Republican leaders, controversy over the Israeli prime minister, fierce lobbying from the White House, and an Israel lobby in Washington concerned, above all, with maintaining bipartisan congressional support.

Since Senators Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) resurfaced their bill, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015, in December, the White House has successfully politicized the issue. Republicans in the new Senate, alongside Menendez, supported the bill exclusively; Democrats supported the president.

As the leaders of France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the European Union all joined Obama in personally lobbying Democratic senators against the bill, Republican “egos,” as one GOP aide said, compromised inter-party support. Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), the new Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, had their own ideas as to how to pressure Iran. Their support for Menendez-Kirk was tepid at best.

Partisan divisions are not typical on Iran legislation, which has, in the past, garnered 90 percent of Congress’ support. Timing makes this effort different: The controversial bill is under consideration as unprecedented negotiations enter the eleventh hour. Democrats will not play the spoiler for their own president on an issue over which the executive has prerogative powers.

The strength of pro-Israel lobbies in the United States— the pillars of their influence— is in their reliable, consistent bipartisan support. A sudden political rupture, with Obama one on side and Netanyahu on the other, shook that foundation.

And so the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and its allies in Washington, had to compromise: In order to maintain bipartisan support, Democrats needed more time. 52 days, to be exact.

That isn’t a whole lot of time, in legislative terms. A vote may have taken place, at the very earliest, around mid-February; the House still needs to pass its own bill, and the two chambers have to conference their versions. The process takes months.

So those in favor of the bill consider this a victory. By granting the president until March to reach a political agreement, they have secured the bipartisan support required to maintain legitimacy in the debate.

The greatest question now remains one, ultimately, left to the Iranians: Whether a political agreement will be clinched before the 24th.

Because, as State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a briefing with reporters on Tuesday: “If there’s a framework agreement, why would there be sanctions legislation put in place?”