Did the Obama Administration Just Defang the War Hawks on the #IranDeal?

Today, Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously approved a bill allowing for Congressional review of the Iran Deal the details of which are being hashed out in the United Nations this very moment. The breakthrough development came earlier this morning, however, when the White House signaled that President Obama would sign (albeit unenthusiastically) a compromise proposal that shortened the Congressional review period and made it more difficult for Congress to scuttle the deal. That contrasts with the President's veto threat of an earlier version of the bill.

I didn't quite grasp what was going on until I read the original version of the bill, sponsored by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker (R-TN) and compared it with the reported changes which resulted from the Administration's relentless lobbying of Congress. Let me lay out the originals and significant changes in a comparative fashion first:

  • The period of time Congress would have to review the deal and decide whether to agree to its lifting of statutory (i.e. Congressionally imposed) sanctions against Iran was reduced from 60 to 30 days. If Congress cannot come to a resolution by that time, the president can lift the sanctions on his own. Given Congress disrepute for speed, this makes it more likely that the time will run out as Congress is bickering and caught into the presidential campaign eddy.
  • Even more importantly, the President can veto Congressional action disallowing the lifting of statutory sanctions, and the President will have 10 days to do so. In such a case, Congress has  12 days to override the veto. The previous version of Corker's bill did not allow the President an opportunity to reject Congressional action at all.
  • Senate sponsors dropped a provision that would have completely scuttled the deal, demanding that the president certify that Iran was not supporting anti-US terrorism. I found it a little funny that the original version seemed to be cool with Iran if it sponsored terrorism against other countries, however. But since terrorism related sanctions have nothing do with the nuclear program and are not being suspended in the deal between Iran and the world powers, the insistence on it was little more than political posturing.

Something to note here is that Congress seems to recognize an additional fact: it can't directly contravene into the decisions of the UN Security Council. Therefore, the entire bill is structured around the legal language "statutory sanctions" - the sanctions Congress imposed rather than the ones imposed by executive order or by the international community.

But why exactly am I saying this may have defanged the "Bomb, bomb Iran" caucus? After all, Congress still technically retains the ability to screw the whole thing up.

Technically. But thanks to the dropping of the terrorism provision, Congress is effectively giving up the ability to use that as a reason to keep the nuclear-related sanctions. Due to the shortening of the review period, Congress will need to act much faster than its usual process. And the President's ability to veto a future unfavorable Congressional action - which will then force the pro-war caucus to come up with actual votes to override the president's veto rather than hide behind the "Give Congress a voice" veil - will both give activists more time to organize and make it more difficult for war hawks to push their agenda.

Given the global positive reviews the framework of the Iran Deal has received, when the final UNSC resolution is unveiled, there is little doubt that it will become even easier for Democrats to support the deal, thus slowly but surely chipping away at votes Republicans would need to build a veto-proof majority in order to stop the deal while they are starved for time to build such majority as well.

Another factor that has to be in the books is the presidential election season. More than one GOP candidates running for president have already grumbled they would not be satisfied with this compromise. There's a chance that they will blow up the compromise even before it reaches the president's desk, which would rob it of Democratic support that would be needed should the White House reinstate the veto threat.

The other, and more likely, possibility is that these Republican candidates muck up a review later, once the deal is reached, costing their party both time and votes that would be needed to stop the deal. Just being able to say "Look, I am not voting for Crazy Cruz's bill" should peel away enough Democrats to sustain a presidential veto.

All of it remains to be seen, of course. But the compromise today has gone from giving Congress a veto over the Iran nuclear deal to a more reasonable one where Congress is kept informed and has a vote, but is far less likely to be able to uproot it against the President's wishes. Granted this legislation does not eliminate the possibility of a Congressional mucking up of the process, it does limit such possibility to a minimum.

By dropping their demands to attach irrelevant provisions to the Iranian nuclear deal - such as a mandatory recognition of Israel by Iran (which were to be offered as an amendment in committee but wasn't) and an end to Iranian support for terrorism as a precondition - the Republicans have given Barack Obama a big victory. President Obama, Secretary Kerry and others in the administration had insisted that those extraneous provisions would essentially serve as poison pills - which is precisely what the GOP wanted to deliver - and they got those removed. As the Israeli paper Haaretz noted, these poison pills were also near and dear to the heart of the Israeli Likud PM and global neocon leader Bibi Netanyahu.

In essence the administration succeeded in focusing the debate on Iran's nuclear capability where it belongs: on Iran's nuclear capacity and nothing else.

This seems to have been a compromise where war hawks were forced to take their itchy finger off the trigger. There appeared to have been enough Democrats that would withhold their votes to keep the previous version from reaching a veto-proof majority, embarrassing both Republicans in Congress and AIPAC (which is now supporting the current version). On the other hand, they had gone too far up the road of asserting Congressional muscle, and Corker and other hawks salvaged the deal by defanging key provisions that would have given Congress - and the war lobby - outsized powers to scuttle the Iran deal in its nascent form.

We will need to continue to watch this Congress like - ironically - a hawk. The President and John Kerry likely prevailed over the instincts of the "Bomb, bomb Iran" caucus for now. While this is cause for optimism, this is no time to let up on the caution.

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