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opinion | Michael A. Cohen

How midterm elections may affect nuclear talks with Iran

Secretary of State John Kerry (from left), EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met in Vienna on Oct. 15.
Secretary of State John Kerry (from left), EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met in Vienna on Oct. 15.AFP/Getty Images

The United States, Iran, and the other members of the so-called P5+1 are three weeks away from a decision that could re-shape the Middle East and provide President Obama with the most enduring achievement of his presidency — a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear aspirations. The deadline for the current round of negotiations is Nov. 24, and speculation is rampant that the differences between the two sides are wide enough that another extension of the talks will be needed.

A delay, however, could have dire consequences, and mainly because it risks giving a group of political hard-liners the opportunity to scuttle a possible deal. I don’t mean the hard-liners in Iran, but rather the ones in the US Senate.

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In a midterm election in which few candidates of either party are actually talking about foreign policy, control of the Senate looms large in the Iran debate – and if Republicans win a majority on Tuesday, it could represent a significant threat to the achievement of a nuclear agreement.

Last year, hawks in the Senate, led by New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez and Illinois Republican Mark Kirk, pushed for legislation that would impose tough new sanctions against Iran. They claimed it would hasten a nuclear deal by increasing the pressure on Tehran, but to most observers it was seen as a poison pill that could have put at risk the fragile interim accord reached in Vienna last fall. After a hard fought effort by the White House and its liberal allies, the bill was stopped in its tracks.

But the sanctions effort didn’t end there. If Republicans win control of the Senate (a better than even possibility) the Kirk-Menendez bill will almost certainly be revived and is likely to pass, with strong Democratic support.

This bad outcome would be a reminder to Iran that permanent lifting of sanctions will be a heavy lift and perhaps impossible if a Republican wins the White House in 2016. In the process it will undercut the negotiating position of the P5+1.

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Republicans of course are desperate to embarrass the president and scuttle a deal. But there are also Democratic senators who will view an extension as reason to ratchet up pressure.

That’s where things could get even worse. Although Obama would almost certainly veto such a bill, many Democrats on Capitol Hill don’t have brimming confidence about a veto override. Senate Democrats — and in particular those up for reelection in 2016 — would be under enormous political pressure from pro-Israel lobbying groups like AIPAC to go against the president. And it might take only 15 or 16 votes to do it (16 Democrats sponsored Kirk-Menendez).

Passage of a new sanctions measure, over a presidential veto, would almost certainly roil the talks, possibly prompt retaliatory action from Tehran, and could convince Iranian leaders that the administration will never be able to fully deliver on sanctions relief. As things currently stand, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is under sizable pressure — both from the heightened expectations of those who voted for him in 2013 and the hard-liners who want to torpedo a deal.

This bleak set of choices, combined with a congressional vote on sanctions, could lead Rouhani to decide he has more to gain from walking away, blaming the United States for obstinacy, and hoping he can win the public relations battle. It’s not a great alternative, but Rouhani doesn’t have many good choices these days.

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All of this would suggest a deal — and soon — is in everyone’s best interest – and yet major obstacles remain. The two sides are perhaps farthest apart on the number of centrifuges for enriching uranium that Iran will be allowed to keep. There are also issues around a full chronicling of Iran’s past behavior and the speed of sanctions relief.

But it seems increasingly clear that even an imperfect deal is likely better than the alternative. No deal means a ratcheting up of tensions in the region, increased pressure on the United States to act militarily, and potentially a push by Iran to move closer to nuclear breakout capability. And after the Tuesday election, reaching even a flawed agreement could become that much more difficult to achieve.

Related:

Ariane Tabatabai: Five myths about Iran’s nuclear program

Stephen Kinzer: Let go of grudges against Cuba, Iran

Editorial: Iran’s identity crisis stymies nuclear deal


Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.