Iran Talks: Congress Won't Wait Long for Progress

Obama's bid for a delay on new sanctions during negotiations probably won't win him much time.

Despite all of the talk in Washington on the need to work together across partisan lines, the White House and the U.S. Congress have continued to clash on virtually every issue of major importance. From the view in the White House, the legislative branch can be an incredibly difficult partner to work with—a body that is characterized these days more as a debating society than as a productive branch of the U.S. government. The feeling is mutual for hundreds of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, many of whom complain that the White House either doesn’t take them seriously as a partner, or leaves them out of the loop.

Unfortunately for the Obama administration, foreign policy is not immune from congressional scrutiny. Traditionally, foreign affairs has been the one area of public policy where U.S. presidents enjoy a wide degree of power and latitude, particularly during wartime, when presidents of both parties exercise their authority under the Constitution as Commander-in-Chief of the nation’s military. Yet even in the world of foreign policy, there are some problems that are just too important for Congress to ignore. Working with the White House is thus imperative, however difficult and frustrating it may be.

For the president and members of Congress, ensuring that the Iranian government is prevented from building or attaining a nuclear weapon is just that type of problem.

While both the Obama administration and Congress agree wholeheartedly on the objective of capping Iran’s nuclear progress, there has always been a tension between the two on how best to meet that goal. Democratic and Republican lawmakers have generally embraced a policy that is far tougher on the Iranians than the White House would prefer. President Obama has consistently argued that negotiating is the most productive way to limit the Iranian nuclear program, albeit with the threat of military force lurking in the background. For many on Capitol Hill, however, that argument often rings hollow. Economic coercion against the Iranians, a policy that the Congress has relied upon for the past three decades and continues to be the preferred approach—evident in the numerous rounds of sanctions that have been passed over the last three years.

Obama officials are well aware of this difference in opinion; the president’s national security advisers have lobbied Congress in the past to hold off any sanctions legislation that would undermine diplomatic openings with Tehran on the nuclear issue. And while the administration has not succeeded every time, they clearly understand that the same strategy needs to be implemented today.

Iranian diplomats and officials in the P5+1 met in Geneva on October 15-16 for the first time in six months, and although the initial discussions did not produce any results, all sides involved in the talks came out praising the constructive and substantive nature of the dialogue. Words, of course, do not mean much if they aren’t backed with concrete action. But even for skeptics of the current negotiations, the fact that U.S., E.U., and Iranian officials were all relatively hopeful that progress could be made was a welcome change from previous rounds, where the Iranians and the P5+1 endorsed maximalist positions.

Another meeting is scheduled for next month, and in order to keep the diplomatic momentum going, the Obama administration wants Congress to delay another broad-based sanctions bill that the Senate Banking Committee was set to take up this week. The delay is so critical for the White House that Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew both met with senators Thursday to argue the point personally. The meetings come after an earlier briefing that the top U.S. negotiator in the talks, Undersecretary Wendy Sherman, gave to the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week. The consultations are all part of a plan that the Obama administration is executing with vigor this week, and for some members of Congress, it will be an opportune time for them to press their own concerns about the status of the Iran-P5+1 talks.

Will the administration be able to stop another round of congressionally imposed economic sanctions for the greater good of diplomacy? It’s very likely that they will manage to convince lawmakers for one more delay. Yet if discussions with the Iranians next month fail to produce any lasting or dramatic concessions from Tehran, some of those very same lawmakers who support a temporary delay will begin to reassess their positions.

For President Obama and his negotiating team, a delay in further sanctions is imperative if there is any hope of convincing the Iranians that the United States is sincere in the diplomatic route. But for Congress, another pause in sanctions legislation that is already on the docket would be a very tough pill to swallow.

Daniel R. DePetris is a Middle East analyst for Wikistrat, Inc. and a contributor to the National Interest.