New US Congress a risk to Iran nuclear deal

Republican control of both Senate and House will make it harder for President Obama to offer Tehran easing of sanctions.

The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, attends talks on a nuclear deal with six world powers in Vienna on July 3, 2014. Heinz-Peter Bader / Reuters
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NEW YORK // With Republicans now in full control of Congress for the first time in Barack Obama’s presidency, a final deal with Iran over its nuclear programme could be at risk.

There is a renewed threat of additional sanctions on Tehran and a risk that Congress might refuse to lift current sanctions if an accord is struck that politicians see as a bad deal or if the talks are extended beyond the November 24 deadline.

“What we ought to do, if we can’t get an acceptable agreement with the Iranians, is tighten the sanctions,” the leader of Senate Republicans, Mitch McConnell, said on Sunday. “In fact, we had a bill in the Senate to do that which the current majority leader wouldn’t allow a vote on. ... That’s the kind of thing a new Senate would be voting on.”

On Tuesday, Republicans seized the Senate in midterm elections, giving the party a majority in both chambers of Congress for the first time in eight years.

The current Democratic Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, blocked a bipartisan bill earlier this year that would have imposed even more stringent sanctions on Iran than are currently in effect.

Now under Republican control, the Senate is likely to revive the bill. Even if it is vetoed by the US president, the newly emboldened Congress could signal to Iran that Mr Obama cannot uphold the US side of any agreement.

“The main concern is that with a Republican Senate the Iranians will worry about the ability of the US government to implement the long-term deal in terms of ultimately lifting sanctions,” said Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington who closely follows the negotiations.

If a deal is reached, Mr Obama will likely bypass Congress on a vote to lift the sanctions by using executive power to temporarily suspend a majority of the crippling sanctions. The sanctions currently prohibit foreign companies from doing business with Iran and deny access to the global financial system.

Administration officials have said that a permanent lifting of sanctions requiring congressional authority would only be necessary after the IAEA is able to verify that Tehran is abiding by the terms of a deal over an extended period of time.

The rationale officials have given is that the threat of reimposing the current sanctions would maintain leverage on Iran to honour the accord.

But a Republican-majority Senate is likely to see such a move by the Obama administration as intended to sideline Congress and may demand a vote on the temporary suspension of sanctions, or even propose new sanctions.

“The question is to what extent Congress will try to screw up the implementation of a nuclear deal if there is one,” Ms Slavin said.

Members of Congress from both parties have said they fear the White House is seeking a bad deal with Iran, one that would allow it to enrich uranium and remain on the threshold of being able to build a nuclear bomb. They see even stronger sanctions as the best way to constrain Iran.

The Republican senator Mark Kirk, who co-authored the recent sanctions legislation that was blocked, said last month that “Congress will not permit the president to unilaterally unravel Iran sanctions”.

But some analysts say they expect Republicans in the Senate, once they are no longer in the opposition, to act more cautiously.

“When they’re in charge maybe some realise this is serious business and they would look more carefully at it,” said George Perkovich, an expert on nuclear strategy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They wouldn’t necessarily support a deal, but you can protest without sabotaging.”

Mr Obama would be able to veto any new sanctions. The Republican majority is also slim, making a vote to override Mr Obama’s veto unlikely, Mr Perkovich said. Many Democrats, however, have criticised the White House’s handling of negotiations and could potentially vote with Republicans.

He said Republican congressional staffers have told him that they do not expect any new sanctions authorised by Congress to be implemented because of the veto power, suggesting the outcome would likely be a protracted political battle for Mr Obama, not the scuttling of a final deal.

“They’re doing politics,” Mr Perkovich added.

When the Senate was on the cusp of voting on the new sanctions bill, Mr Obama reportedly told Senate Democrats that if the negotiations failed, Iran would likely resume accelerated nuclear activity and force him to ask Congress to approve military action, said Mr Perkovich.

The new Senate would likely face the same choice, but at a time of widespread conflict in the Middle East it is unclear if they would welcome that responsibility.

“It will be hard to argue that now is the time to throw kerosene on a simmering flame,” Mr Perkovich said.

“A new Senate majority will have to be very careful.”