US Mideast Policy and the Congressional Elections
Nov 12, 2014
November 12, 2014
Number 11/14 #02
This Update features comment on how last week’s US Congressional election – which saw the Republicans gain control of the Senate to add to their majority in the House of Representatives and made other major political gains – may affect US Middle East policy up until Nov. 2016, when a successor to US President Barack Obama will be elected.
First up, Washington political reporter Julian Pecquet of al-Monitor provides a solid general summary of a number of Mideast policy areas where Congressional Republicans are likely to seek to have influence (details on what the Republicans are saying about their foreign policy plans are here). These include Syria and Iraq and the war against ISIS, relations with Israel – recently rocked by the “chickenshit” attacks on the PM Netanyahu from within the Administration – and relations with Egypt’s military government, but the most important will be the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Pecquet notes that a new sanctions bill against Iran which the Administration had previously managed to bury is almost certain to be passed in January, possibly even at veto-proof levels, and that other forms of close scrutiny of US negotiations with Iran are being planned by the new Congressional leaders. For this good general summary of what the Republicans are likely to seek to do, and what leverage they have, CLICK HERE. An excellent look at the history of Congressional attempts to influence US foreign policy, demonstrating the limits of Congress’ role, comes from American writer and columnist Michael Barone.
Next up, Israel writer and thinktanker Shmuel Rosner goes into the Iranian nuclear policy issue in more detail, including considering what may happen between the White House and Congress in the event of a number of future contingencies. These are: a breakdown in the nuclear talks, an indefinite extension of the talks after the Nov. 24 deadline, or a nuclear agreement being reached of the sort that looks achievable at the moment – that is, one likely to be unacceptable to Republican critics of the President’s Iran policy. Rosner predicts a number of measures designed to assert Congressional influence regardless of what happens, and also discusses the likely role of Democrats and the possibility of being able to override a presidential veto of new legislation in some circumstances. For his important analysis with all the details, CLICK HERE. Rosner also had an excellent piece in the New York Times on the weekend about the background to recent clashes in Jerusalem. Plus, more on Congress’ options vis a vis Iran comes from the Foreign Policy Initiative, a Washington thinktank.
Finally, veteran Israeli diplomat turned academic Oded Eran offers some advice to the Israeli Government on dealing with the change in Washington. In particular, he stresses that it is a bad idea to give the appearance of being partisan in US politics and urges that in any case, it is important to recognise that Congress’ ability to change the Administation’s foreign policy stances are quite limited. He advises a policy of balance and restraint designed to minimise the friction with the current Administration over the next two years. For his full discussion, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Jeffrey Goldberg, a journalist usually strongly sympathetic to the Obama Administation’s Middle East policy, takes on the President’s latest note to Iran. More on Obama’s “bet on Iran” from Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post and academic Michael Rubin.
- Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says Israel must be “annihilated” and sets out his 9 point program to do so. More on this from Michael Rubin,
- IAEA Inspectors say Iran is failing to answer their questions as the agency tries to check Teheran’s compliance with the interim nuclear agreements. Meanwhile, Iran is reportedly continuing to increase its enriched uranium stockpiles.
- A former senior weapons inspector says Iran may have five times the number of advanced centrifuges that it has so far admitted. Plus there are also credible allegations that Iran has started introducing uranium gas into its advanced centrifuges in violation of the nuclear agreement. Meanwhile, opposition groups say Iran has some previously unknown explosives chamber for testing nuclear fuses.
- Cliff May takes on some media falsehoods about contemporary Iran.
- Some new details on how Gazans get weapons and training from Iran.
- America’s most senior general says it appears to him that Israel went to “extraordinary lengths” to limit civilian deaths during the Gaza war earlier this year. Moreover, the US military is reportedly sending teams of senior officers to learn from Israeli tactics during that conflict. Some analysis comes from Jonathan Tobin.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Jamie Hyams offers detailed background on the current explosive situation in Jerusalem – and detailed evidence that the supposedly moderate Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas is openly inciting terror attacks on Israelis using the explosive pretext that the al-Aqsa mosque is in danger.
- Ahron Shapiro takes on a complete falsehood about Israeli settlements spread by former Australian foreign minister Bob Carr.
- Sharyn Mittelman discusses the important UN testimony of an Israeli Greek Orthodox Priest about regional realities for Middle East Christians.
Republicans have gained control of the Senate and strengthened their lock on the House in what amounts to a referendum on President Barack Obama’s policies, including his failure to foresee and forestall the rise of the Islamic State (IS). The unexpectedly lopsided victory creates intense political pressure on Obama to shift course, not only on Iran but also with regard to Syria/Iraq, Israel, Egypt and other Middle East issues.
One of the first priorities for the new Republican Senate will be deciding the role it wants to play in overseeing — and possibly derailing — the negotiations with Iran, which are still expected to produce some kind of deal or at least an agreement to keep talking by the Nov. 24 deadline. The Democrat-controlled Senate managed to stave off a vote on bipartisan sanctions legislation this year following an intense lobbying campaign by the administration, but the new Republican leadership will most likely demand a say.
One top contender for a vote is a bill by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Banking Committee Mark Kirk, R-Ill., that would slap new sanctions on Iran if it fails to abide by its previous agreements. It has garnered 60 co-sponsors — including 17 Democrats (several of whom lost re-election) and all but two Republicans. Rank-and-file members will demand a vote when Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., replaces Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in January.
“I expect that the Senate will be Republican-controlled after the next election,” Kirk told Al-Monitor back in September. “And the first thing up should be Menendez-Kirk.”
Following Tuesday’s elections, Republicans will control at least 52 seats and possibly as many as 54 (elections in Virginia, Alaska and Louisiana have still not been called). If the bill is reintroduced again next year and past supporters sign back up, it could attract 67 co-sponsors — enough to break a veto by Obama. In the House, where Republicans gained at least 13 seats on Tuesday, similar legislation passed 400-20 last year.
Another bill that could come up for a vote is legislation from Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations panel, that would put lawmakers on the record supporting or opposing any deal reached between the White House and the Iranian leadership. While nonbinding, a “joint resolution of disapproval” would make it that much more difficult politically for the Obama administration to unilaterally relax sanctions on Iran, a requirement for Iran to make any concessions on its end.
Beyond legislative action, Republicans are also expected to turn the heat up on Iran talks through their oversight powers. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who is in line to take over the House Intelligence panel, told The Daily Beast Nov. 5 that he wants to investigate back-channel talks going back several years between Iran and the United States.
“There is going to be real scrutiny from the House and Senate in what’s taken place on the entire Obama administration’s tenure dealing with the Iranians,” Nunes reportedly said.
While the Republican Congress holds strong cards on Iran through its ability to potentially derail a deal, it can also play an important role on several other fronts, including:
Obama will come under intense pressure to take a more forceful role in combating not only IS but also Syrian President Bashar al-Assad when his longtime critic John McCain, R-Ariz., takes over the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain has long called on the United States to arm vetted Syrian rebels and wants to reverse cuts to the national defense budget.
“Republican control of the Senate = expanded neocon wars in Syria and Iraq. Boots on the ground are coming!” tweeted former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a libertarian critic of US intervention abroad.
Obama quickly acknowledged the need to get lawmakers’ buy-in for his IS strategy following Tuesday’s rout by calling on Congress to give him new war-making authority in a post-election speech.
“I’m going to begin engaging Congress over a new Authorization to Use Military Force against [IS],” Obama said Wednesday. “The world needs to know we are united behind this effort, and the men and women of our military deserve our clear and unified support.”
Tuesday’s elections are widely seen as good news for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose poor relations with Obama reached their nadir last month with the publication of a US article quoting an unnamed administration official calling him a “chickenshit.” The Republican victory is seen as tying the administration’s hands to some extent in its ability to strike a nuclear deal with Iran that doesn’t have Israel’s blessing, while creating momentum for efforts to cut aid to the Palestinians as well as the UN agency that handles Palestinian refugees.
Finally, the Republican victory could mean good news for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. One of his top congressional critics, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., will lose his gavel as chairman of the Appropriations panel that oversees foreign aid in January, potentially opening the door to legislative changes that would allow the Obama administration to release $650 million worth of military hardware that’s currently blocked by Congress.
Julian Pecquet is Al-Monitor’s Congressional Correspondent. He previously led The Hill’s Global Affairs blog.
Back to Top
by Shmuel Rosner
Jewish Week, Nov. 10
As negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program reach their peak this week – with the November 24 deadline getting closer – the political situation in the US is much different from that of a week and a half ago. This raises the obvious question: does a new, Republican and more combative, Senate impact negotiations and a future agreement with Iran? On Friday evening, attending the Israeli American Council’s inaugural national conference at the Washington Hilton, I heard former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney hitting President Obama hard for his reported letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The President, Romney said, “continues to diminish himself and America, these acts of his that unfortunately lead bad people to assume that American can be pushed around and I find it very unfortunate”.
Whether one agrees with Romney or not, his harsh criticism is typical of the new Senate majority. In meetings I had in Washington last week I asked several policy makers how many Republican Senators they expect would vote for strengthening the sanctions against Iran, if such a proposal is back on the table. The estimation runs from 52 Senators (leaving the two opposing Senators from the last round out), to 53 (including Senator Rand Paul in the majority vote). They also estimated that 10-15 Democratic Senators could vote for more sanctions even if the Obama administration opposes such a move. “Would there be a veto-proof majority? That’s hard to tell”, one of them told me. “But it is not impossible”.
Imagine – he said – what happens if Hillary Clinton publically says that the time has come for stronger sanctions. “All of a sudden, we could see how the Democratic minority in the Senate moves to associate itself with the next prospective President rather than with the current President”.
Clinton supporter and philanthropist Haim Saban said Sunday morning in Washington that more sanctions are needed: “we’ve shown too many carrots and a small stick”. This should not surprise all those who have been following the thinking in the Clinton camp about Iran. Consider the view on Iran Hillary Clinton expressed not long ago: “I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment. Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right. I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran. The preference would be no enrichment. The potential fallback position would be such little enrichment that they could not break out. So, little or no enrichment has always been my position”.
Clinton’s position, reasonably, depends on the details of the agreement, or lack thereof. And activity in the Senate also depends on what the administration is able to accomplish in the next two weeks until the deadline. Two things are going to happen, though, regardless of the outcome, and these things are already in the making:
One – the warnings from proponents of the sanctions bill (the legislation was shelved at the beginning of the year due to administration pressure) will increase in number and will become more severe in tone as we get closer to the deadline (a source close to a senior Republican Senator told me: “a bad agreement with Iran would be the ultimate proof of Obama’s incompetence as a world leader”). We’ve seen it with Romney from the Republican side, and with Senator Lyndsey Graham, at the same event, promising to “kill” a “bad deal” with Iran. But we’ve heard a similar message – if a little more polite in tone – from Democratic Senator Menendez, one of the two sponsors of the shelved bill (along with Senator Kirk).
Two – it will not be just rhetoric, it will also be action. On January, Graham promised, the time for talk will be over, and the time for voting will begin. Graham would like to reassert the role and the centrality of Congress in the process of negotiations with Iran by passing a bill that makes it mandatory for the administration to put any agreement to an “up or down” vote in Congress. Senators would also like to redraw for the administration the lines beyond which an agreement does not pass the “laugh test”, as one Washington insider defined it.
Of course, the administration might not accept the “lines” and the “demands” of a new Congress. It can decide to wave the sanctions away unilaterally. But it has a problem: it cannot remove them from the books – only Congress can do that. “Believe me, the Iranians know this and would want to make sure that they do not sign an agreement and then are hit back with sanctions as soon as Obama leaves office”, an aid to a senior legislator told me. Trita Parsi wrote similarly in Foreign Affairs: “Absent a permanent lifting of the relevant U.S. sanctions on Iran – which would require an act of Congress – the agreement would never hold”.
So the new Republican majority could probably damage or kill an agreement. The question, of course, is if it wants to. What happens after the speeches are made and the letters are signed and sent? Three different scenarios can be drawn – depending on what happens in negotiations:
1. No agreement, no talks
That’s the easy one. If talks fail to provide for any agreement and break down, the way for a new round of sanctions will be cleared. On Sunday, Obama warned that a deal might not be possible. So maybe in a short while the administration itself would support a new round to put more pressure on Iran. A handful of Republicans (one or two) and Democratic leftists (as many as 10) could still oppose the new legislation, but it would pass with flying colors. Republicans would, of course, still use the occasion to sting the administration (and the Democratic Party) for not letting the legislation pass long ago.
2. No agreement, extension of talks
Things become more complicated in such a case. But we can expect Congress to act in one of a few ways if the administration agrees to keep talking. It can move very quickly, with the support of the current Democratic leadership – a leadership that has diminishing political reasons to be attentive to the concerns of the Obama administration – to pass the Kirk-Menendez bill. Or it can pass it with an activation mechanism that puts the sanctions to work as soon as the next deadline expires (unless there is an agreement good enough for the Senate to reconsider the bill). Or it can wait with it for the Republican majority and then pass it in one of the two above-mentioned forms.
The Obama administration would need to make a decision at some point on whether it wants to engage Congress in the hope that it can have impact on the language of the legislation – or it can decide not to engage a Republican majority on this issue and rely on the veto power of the president and on his ability to waive the sanctions.
What the Republican majority is going to do if there’s an agreement on the table is hard to foresee without having the full details of the agreement before us. But there are many signs that leaders in Congress, and not just on the Republican side, could not be easily impressed by any agreement that the Obama administration is likely to provide. If they are not impressed, they’ll want to clarify their position and they’ll want to try to sabotage the agreement. That is, unless the administration is able to A. provide them with assurances that the agreement is really a “good” agreement – one that truly puts a stop to Iran’s military nuclear program, or B. convince the majority of the public that the agreement is good – and put the pressure on the opponents who would not want to be seen as “war mongers” (public opinion on the issue of Iran can be very confusing).
The administration could also try to ignore Congress or try to circumvent it by using several means. One possibility that was recently mentioned to concerned Israel officials: the Obama administration could turn to the UN to lift the international sanctions on Iran, and by doing so it could also mobilize the business community in the US to put pressure on Congress to lift the American sanctions – so as not to remain the only business community that does not profit from the thaw in relations with Iran. Naturally, Congress is not going to let Obama ignore it in such a way without responding. Maybe such speculation was behind Senator Graham’s implied threat to “cut off” funding to the UN (Graham did not link the threat to Iran – he said he’d cut funding if the UN “keep this Israeli bashing up”).
So here’s what to expect:
No matter what happens: letters and statements that define what “a good agreement” means.
No matter what happens: the drafting of legislation that makes it mandatory to get Congressional approval for a deal (it will pass, but a veto proof majority seems unlikely at this time – possibly later).
If there is no deal or a bad deal: the drafting of legislation that puts more sanctions on Iran (it will pass – but a veto proof majority depends on having no deal or a majority agreeing that the administration presented a bad deal)
Back to Top
Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, served as director of INSS from July 2008 to November 2011, following a long career in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other government positions.