The Cable

Iran Nuclear Deal Halts Congress's March to Sanctions

A mounting bipartisan effort to impose additional sanctions on Iran was sent into disarray on Monday following the weekend's announcement of a deal on Iran's nuclear program. Although some hawks in Congress want to charge ahead with additional sanctions against Tehran, that effort has taken a backseat to legislation that will let the Geneva deal play out -- an important victory for the White House.

Much was made of the bipartisan outrage Sunday over the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) called the deal "disappointing," Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said it gave too much away and Republicans called it a "blow to our allies." Media reports warned that the lawmakers may propose a new round of deal-killing sanctions. But if you listen to what the Iran hawks are now proposing, it's exactly what the White House wants: a hold on additional sanctions with the promise of new sanctions if the deal falls apart.

"I expect that the forthcoming sanctions legislation to be considered by the Senate will provide for a six month window to reach a final agreement before imposing new sanctions on Iran," Menendez said in a statement Sunday.

Democratic whip Rep. Steny Hoyer described similar legislation in an interview on Face the Nation.  "I think it is appropriate that we wait six months to implement those, which will say to the Iranians, we need a final deal, and if not a final deal, these tougher sanctions are going to go in place," he said.

Republican Senator Mark Kirk, one of Congress's most vocal Iran hawks, also suggested that Iran be given the chance to comply with the deal before further sanctions are enacted.

Almost any interpretation of President Obama's remarks on Saturday night conveys the exact same position. "If Iran does not fully meet its commitments during this six-month phase, we will turn off the relief and ratchet up the pressure," Obama said with regards to sanctions.

The reason the White House took so much friendly fire on its Geneva deal is not a mystery. A number of top Democrats have taken heat from pro-Israel constituents during the last several weeks of P5+1 negotiations. That lobbying effort culminated in a flurry of press releases and Sunday talk show appearances in which Democrats blasted the administration's deal. But as much pressure as Democrats are under, they're not willing to sabotage the Obama administration's painstaking, year-long diplomatic efforts at striking a deal with Iran. 

In an interview on CNN, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) acknowledged the impossible politics of voting for additional sanctions in open defiance of the White House. "I think [this deal] makes it very difficult to continue the sanctions," he said. "I have been in favor obviously ... Congress really believes that sanctions should happen. I think it's difficult for the Senate to do sanctions now."

Some lawmakers such as Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Steve Israel, and Rep. Kevin McCarthy believe new sanctions should be passed despite the deal. However, such an effort would require the support of Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid and most likely Sen. Tim Johnson, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. And since the deal was finalized on Saturday night, Reid's attitude has shifted from advocating immediate sanctions to "considering" new sanction following a round of hearings. Meanwhile, a Johnson spokesman tells The Cable that he will first consult with the Obama administration before considering further sanctions.

"Chairman Johnson has always supported a diplomatic solution that would set Iran on a path to fully and verifiably abandon its illicit nuclear activities. So he is encouraged by President Obama's announcement on Saturday regarding the interim agreement in Geneva," Johnson spokesman Sean Oblack said. "He wants to be fully briefed by Secretary Kerry on the details of the agreement and its implementation, and to consult with colleagues, before making decisions about any committee action on new Iran-related legislation."

Given the administration's insistence that any new sanctions now would implode the Geneva deal, Johnson is not likely to walk out of those briefings in support of such action.

Meanwhile, all the doom and gloom in Congress has mystified nuclear non-proliferation advocates who see the agreement as an historic opportunity to curtail Iran's nuclear program.

"I don't get these guys in Congress," Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, told The Cable. "In the word's of Joe Biden, this is a big fucking deal. It's not too often you can watch the hinge of history move. Every president since Jimmy Carter has tried to get a deal with Iran. This is the first president to actually do it."

Cirincione caught the news of a deal during a meeting at the Halifax International Security Forum, a gathering of hundreds of policy wonks, administration officials, lawmakers and journalists in Canada. The conference attracted foreign-policy minds across the political spectrum, but as news trickled out of Geneva, left-leaning security experts erupted in celebration.

"It's only the first step, there's a lot of hard work to do, but it is huge," said Cirincione

Heather Hurlbert, a former State Department and White House official and senior advisor at the National Security Network, applauded after watching the president's Saturday night address on a hotel flat screen TV.

"You've got to credit the president on this," she told The Cable.  "I recently went back and was looking at his campaign speeches, and he did what he said he was going to do. And that's not something people get a lot of credit for in our politics right now."

Hurlbert doubted that Reid would cross the administration on this issue. "I feel quite confident that Harry Reid is not going to blow up his president's deal," she said. "Which has nothing to do with what Harry Reid might or might not say publicly."

Some right-leaning experts expressed skepticism over the deal. "As much as we all hope we can stop Iran's progress toward WMD peacefully, I think we have to worry that what we are doing is freezing some capacity while other development goes on," said the McCain Institute's Kurt Volker.

The Cable

Deal Reached to Halt Iran's Nuclear Program

GENEVA - The historic nuclear deal Iran signed with the United States and five other world powers early Sunday morning represents the biggest gamble of President Barack Obama's presidency, and the success or failure of that bet will have serious repercussions for the administration's standing on Capitol Hill, Washington's relationships with Israel and other Middle Eastern allies, and the national security of the United States itself.

The deal painstakingly assembled during four days of marathon negotiations at a luxury hotel here calls for Iran to halt most of its uranium enrichment efforts, eliminate its stockpiles of uranium already purified to near weapons grade quality, open its facilities to daily monitoring by international inspectors and significantly slow the construction of the Arak plutonium reactor. Nuclear weapons can be assembled using either enriched uranium or plutonium, and the new pact is designed to make it difficult, if not impossible, for Iran to gain enough of either material for a bomb.

In exchange, Iran would gain some relief from the punishing economic sanctions that had been leveled by Washington and its allies in recent years, freeing up roughly $6 billion. Tehran also won a commitment that the so-called P5+1 nations -- the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain -- wouldn't impose any new sanctions for the next six months. That was an important win for the Iranians since the existing measures have cut its oil exports in half and driven the price of its currency down to a historic low.

The negotiations between the two sides have been going on in stops and starts for nearly a decade, but the actual unveiling of the deal was strangely muted. The text of the agreement itself was signed at roughly 3:30 AM in Geneva's Palais des Nations in a quiet ceremony open to only a small number of reporters and not televised or otherwise broadcast electronically. Lady Catherine Ashton, the European Union's chief diplomat and one of the prime architects of the deal, didn't participate in the public rollout of the agreement or take any questions from reporters.

President Obama, speaking from the White House, said the deal "halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program" and "cut off Iran's most likely paths to a bomb." He also stressed that the agreement was an interim measure designed to give negotiators from both sides six months to work towards a broader, permanent nuclear agreement. If a deal couldn't be reached -- or if the United States found evidence that Iran was trying to secretly continue work on its nuclear weapons program -- Obama promised to restore the sanctions that had been lifted and impose harsh new ones.

The White House moved quickly to try to preempt criticism that the deal gave Iran too much.  A senior administration official in Washington said the primary U.S. sanctions against Iran's oil and banking sectors would remain fully intact, which means that Iran would lose roughly $30 billion in oil revenue over the next six months, far more than it stands to gain as part of the agreement.  "Iran will actually be worse off at the end of this six month deal than it is today," the official said.

With the agreement in place, the administration is now gambling that it can overcome three distinct challenges.

First, the White House has to persuade skeptical lawmakers to hold off on imposing new sanctions on Iran during the next six months. That may be a hard sell given the number of lawmakers from both parties who want to increase the sanctions on Iran rather than softening or relieving any of the existing measures. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, a close White House ally, has said he's prepared to take up a tough new sanctions bill when the Senate comes back into session next month. The bill would almost certainly pass if it was put to a full vote. Secretary of State John Kerry said Obama was prepared to veto new sanctions legislation, but that's a battle the White House would dearly love to avoid.

Next, the administration faces the tough task of convincing Israel that the deal does enough to constrain Iran's nuclear program that Israel should give the administration more time to work out a permanent pact with Tehran rather than resorting to unilateral military strikes. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was harshly critical of earlier iterations of the nuclear deal and has promised to do whatever is necessary to protect his country. Administration officials said Obama would speak to Netanyahu Sunday to brief him on the details of the deal. One official said in an interview that the White House felt that Netanyahu, no matter how angry he was about the agreement, would reluctantly give the administration six months to test Tehran's intentions.  With the P5+1 countries committed to ongoing negotiations with Iran, the official said that Netanyahu knows any military action would risk rupturing Israel's relationships with the U.S., China and most of Europe. "Bibi will hold his nose, but he'll let us have six months," the official said.

The third and final unknown is what the deal will ultimately mean for American national security.  The agreement imposes an unprecedented number of new restrictions on Iran's nuclear program and, if fully implemented, would make it extraordinarily difficult for Tehran to obtain a bomb. Still, the deal doesn't require Iran to disassemble any of its roughly 19,000 centrifuges or to destroy all of its uranium enrichment equipment. Netanyahu and other critics argue that leaving the core infrastructure of Iran's nuclear program intact means that Tehran could restart its weapons push anytime it wants, particularly if it senses that the West has lost its appetite for further sanctions or the potential use of military force.

Even if the deal succeeds in freezing Iran's nuclear program, meanwhile, Washington and Tehran still remain on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war and face lingerng disputes over Iran's support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, a network of heavily-armed Shiite militias in Iraq, and Shiite activist groups in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states. The nuclear deal could clear the way for further pacts down the road devoted specifically to issues like reducing Tehran's support for the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.  For the moment, though, those disputes serve as reminders of just how enormous a bet Obama has made by inking this new nuclear deal with Tehran.