Hardliners and the Politics of Nuclear Talks with Iran

Kara Fitzgerald

Little over a month remains to strike a deal with Iran in an endless series of nuclear talks before the November 24th deadline created by the interim deal this past November. The United States maintains one goal: to make certain that Iran will never produce a nuclear weapon. At this stage of negotiations, the United States is pushing for Iran to reduce its centrifuges from a current 10,000 down to 1,500. Iran, while seeking to free itself from the crippling weight of UN sanctions against it, maintains a goal of building its enrichment capacity for civil functions. A dominant narrative in US news argues that Iraq hardliners are the force behind failure in these talks: those that refuse to degrade Iraq’s nuclear capabilities even slightly. What, however, about the lesser-mentioned United States hardliners? How are United States domestic politics and American hardline voices tipping the odds of the discussion to failure?

Counterintuitively, for many in Washington right now, the only true political success is failure. Success would mean having made concessions to the other side. Many commentators argue that our best hope right now, and most likely result, is an agreement to extend the deadline[1], to keep talking and disagreeing. A resistant Congress has been a huge factor in an immobile line on reduction. Some members have even attempted to tighten sanctions, for example this past January[2], despite ongoing negotiations considering loosening in exchange for parallel concessions. This and other actions by Congress have meant a constant looming threat over negotiation: If the state department and top diplomatic officials can even beat the widely perceived odds to come to an agreement, will the United States Congress even accept it?

The Obama administration seems to be preparing for the possibility that the answer is “no.” The New York Times[3] reported on Sunday that the Obama administration, in consultation with the Treasury Department, is prepared to circumvent a vote of Congress by enacting temporary suspensions of sanctions on Iran, obviously a response to the belief that Congress would be unable or unwilling to do so. Sanctions are a huge source of leverage for the United States and sanction relief for Iran is an inevitable trade associated with any Iranian concessions on enrichment equipment and sites. Congress, unsurprisingly, has proven displeased with the possibility of being shut out from the debate. Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, one of the sponsors behind January efforts to tighten sanctions, issued a statement over the weekend that Congress will respond if a deal is made that does not “substantially and effectively dismantle Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program.” A fellow hardliner critic of the negotiations, Senator Mark S. Kirk, stated, “Congress will not permit the president to unilaterally unravel Iran sactions that passed the Senate in a 99 to 0 vote.” If the current Congress poses a threat to the current negotiations, or at least a complication, the impending Congress poses still a greater one.

President Obama may be able to appease Iranian representatives with his ability to temporarily relieve sanctions in the face of a hostile Congress, but he certainly cannot permanently maintain such a transaction. If Democrats hold on to the Senate next month, officials cited by the New York Times on Sunday[4] have said that it is still likely that a vote for a new Iran deal would still lose. If Republicans win the Senate, that likelihood is immensely greater. Can United States officials convince Congress to compromise more than it seems willing to? At the least, can the United States convince Iranian officials that it has a more willing Congress than it does? The Iranian foreign minister has affirmed his ability to convince Tehran. The public will hear much talk in the coming weeks about the dangers of Iranian hardliners and would not accept any compromise that might arise at negotiations. Let us not forget about the American ones.

The time ahead is for negotations on multiple fronts including between foreign officials of the respective nations, between Iranian foreign officials and Tehran influences, and between American foreign officials including President Obama and Congress. There is no doubt that the Pennsylvania Avenue front is a contentious one and it is a reality acknowledged by Iranian officials when considering the United States’ ability to follow through on deals. The near future of U.S. domestic politics holds great implications for the future of Iranian nuclear talks. We might soon see that failure to negotiate will win political points and the time for a decision may very well be pushed to a later date, but it is important to acknowledge that one of the stagnant parts that might be required to move is the domestic gear of our nation. The six weeks remaining to come up with a deal and the future that waits beyond that date are unclear, but if we agree with Henry Kissinger, that Iran is a bigger problem than ISIS for the United States[5], the pressure to overcome politics and achieve statemanship must be all the more pressing.