A Delicate Atomic Dance: Managing the Aftermath of the Iran Nuclear Talks

"The question will be whether both Iranian and American negotiators and politicians can find the right balance, particularly if negotiations persist for even longer than currently envisioned."

With the agreement in Vienna between Iran and the P5+1 on an extension of the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, policy makers will now have to turn to the equally challenging and important task of managing the aftermath. From this point forward, American and Iranian negotiators will have to double down not only on negotiations with each other, but also on winning, and sustaining, support from other constituencies that could make or break prospects for nuclear diplomacy. Specifically, negotiators will have to sell the outcome to four groups: (1) the U.S. Congress; (2) Iranian hardliners; (3) nervous allies—most notably Israel and Saudi Arabia; and (4) the countries negotiating alongside the United States (together, the P5+1)—especially Russia and China.

Achieving success in nuclear diplomacy will require a very difficult balancing act. Inevitably, every stakeholder will face some disappoints. Obama and Rouhani will be challenged to effectively reassure or outmaneuver other parties, while avoiding their core interests that, if violated, would motivate any of them to scuttle a deal. This will not be an easy task, but it will make all the difference between a possibility for eventual success in negotiations that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and a collapse of the talks that leads to escalating confrontation and a possibility of war.

A Way Out for Congress

In Congress, political momentum for tough action on Iran is strong, particularly in the aftermath of Republican gains in the 2014 midterm elections. Many legislators are looking for ways to exercise authority as representatives of a co-equal branch of government and express disapproval over how the administration has handled negotiations. They are contemplating the passage of new sanctions in an effort to turn up the heat on Iran and compel major concessions. But this strategy could backfire, notwithstanding the pro-diplomacy intent of some of its backers. The open question is whether Congressional action will ultimately proceed and be responsible for derailing nuclear diplomacy.

The good news is that despite the tough words coming from the Hill, the legislative branch has historically been hesitant to take full responsibility for major foreign-policy issues. One need only go back to the aftermath of the 2006 midterm elections where Democrats successfully campaigned on ending the war in Iraq, only to stand by as the Bush administration implemented the surge.

Moreover, while there is a bipartisan imperative to do “something” on the Hill, there will likely be little desire, particularly from Democrats, for that “something” to be seen as sabotaging the president’s policies and undermining the best opportunity the United States has had for a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran in thirty-five years. Indeed, a November 19 Congressional letter signed by forty-three Republicans warning the president not to circumvent Congress in the event of a deal with Iran was more noteworthy not because of the forty-three members who signed it, but for the lack of any Democratic signatories.

The best outcome for nuclear diplomacy would be no new legislation at all as negotiations continue. Any legislation addressing Iran could fundamentally undermine a deal by shaking Iran’s confidence in President Obama’s ability to remove sanctions independently and act without censure by a hawkish Congress.

The Obama administration will have to make a decision. If it believes it can avoid legislation with a veto-proof majority of Congressional support, it should object to any new sanctions legislation. However, if passage of such legislation becomes inevitable, the administration should work with Congress on new sanctions and at all costs maintain the administration’s ability to use sanctions waivers in existing sanctions law or in potential new sanctions legislation. This is fundamental to preserving the credibility and nimbleness of the president to offer sanctions relief to Iran if it makes meaningful concessions on its nuclear program.

There is ample precedent for cooperation between Congress and the Obama administration on sanctions, and no reason it cannot happen again. At the end of 2011, Congress passed sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran, despite very strong initial objections from the Obama administration that such a move would overplay sanctions and undermine unity of the international coalition concerned with the Iranian nuclear program. Once it became clear that legislation was inevitable, the administration and Congress were able to work together through a combination of intensive negotiations, creative lawyering and effective implementation to create one of the most effective sanctions programs in history, cutting Iranian oil exports by half and playing a significant role in bringing the Iranians back to the negotiating table.