by Richard Baehr
If this does not sound like a resounding victory to you, that is because it isn't one.
The votes are in, and supporters of the Iran deal appear to have won a big victory in the U.S. Congress. The Corker-Cardin legislation set up a process whereby the Iran deal would be handled as an executive agreement rather than a treaty, and as a result, deal opponents would have needed two-thirds of both the Senate and the House of Representatives to secure a victory (meaning a rejection of the deal), through an override of an Obama veto of their initial rejection of the agreement.
How did the deal opponents do? In the Senate, 58 of the 100 senators announced their opposition to the agreement -- all 54 Republicans and 4 Democrats. Some 42 Democrats announced their support for the deal. To protect President Barack Obama from the humiliation of having to veto an initial rejection of the agreement (his self-described signature foreign policy and second-term "achievement"), Democratic senators filibustered and refused to allow a vote on the deal itself. But in the vote on cloture -- the attempt to cut off debate so that there would be a vote on the agreement itself, the 42 Democrats in the president's corner held together and prevented that vote. Of course, every vote on the cloture resolution was the same as the announced support or rejection of the deal by senators before the discussions before the actual vote began. So it is not as if we did not know where every senator stood on the deal.
In the House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner, aware that the Democrats would filibuster in the Senate and thereby prevent a vote in both houses of Congress to reject the agreement, shifted the vote from one rejecting the deal (as outlined in the Corker bill) to one supporting the deal. That vote showed 162 Democrats in favor of the agreement and 269 House members opposed (25 Democrats and 244 Republicans).
Combining the two houses of Congress, 204 Democrats supported the agreement, and 327 House and Senate members rejected it (29 Democrats and 298 Republicans). So, this is the Obama victory about which the administration was crowing: 327 members of Congress (62%) opposing the deal, and 204 members (38%) supporting it. If this does not sound like a resounding victory to you, that is because it isn't one.
Consider also, that the administration, via Secretary of State John Kerry, publicly stated that it did not submit the Iran deal to the Senate for ratification as a treaty (even though the changes to previous arms control treaties in the new agreement and the overall significance of the Iran agreement would have certainly justified that approach), because the votes were not there for approval. That turned out to be a significant understatement, of course. A treaty requires two-thirds of senators voting for approval, or 67 of the 100. So the Obama team only missed by 25 Senate votes the number needed for a treaty approval, or a 40% shortfall.
Also worth considering is the party breakdown on the vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The president, despite major efforts with several Republican senators and House members, could not persuade a single one to endorse the deal. On the other hand, despite intense lobbying by the president, Secretary Kerry, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and numerous outside pro-Iran, anti-Israel, pro-peace groups and other left-wing groups as well as congressional "whips" in the Senate and the House (most notably Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California), 29 Democrats strayed and showed enough independence of judgment to reject the agreement. What this means is that support for the agreement was entirely partisan, as it was for Obamacare in 2010, with only Democrats in line to do the administration's bidding. But opposition to the agreement was bipartisan, with over 12% of Democrats and 100% of Republicans rejecting the deal.
To overcome a presidential veto would have required 43 House Democrats and 13 Senate Democrats to vote no. That was a tall order in each House, requiring almost a fourth of the Democrats in Congress overall to oppose a president of their party.
There are other signs that the president’s "victory" may be a pyrrhic one. There is enormous interest in the Republican Party's nominating process, in large part due to some unconventional candidates in the field, Donald Trump most prominently. At each of the first two debates, watched by enormous TV audiences of well over 20 million each time, the Iran deal has been attacked by many of the contenders in an articulate and very specific fashion. The criticisms (all of them pretty much justified) have included that the administration oversold the deal, deliberately misled Congress and the public about side agreements between Iran and the IAEA and basically caved into Iranian demands in the last few weeks of negotiations in every major area from our earlier announced positions (supposed red lines), due to Obama's eagerness to secure the agreement.
Is Iran cut off from all pathways to a nuclear bomb? The president himself has acknowledged that there will be no limits on Iran after a period of years specified in the agreement. But in the earlier years of the agreement, breakout only requires that Iran decides to cheat, as it has done routinely in the past. The supposed extension of the breakout time -- 3 months pre-agreement to a year after implementation of the agreement -- may overstate the reality of the extension of time achieved, given that Iran will retain all its centrifuges (and be allowed to upgrade them in a few years), can continue to run a third of the centrifuges, retains its processed fuel (though in a different chemical state), maintains all of its known nuclear facilities (as well as perhaps others we do not know exist). If the Iranians cheat, what happens? That depends on whether anyone calls them on it, and even then, on the agreement of at least 5 parties to the deal to take action (pretty unlikely, in other words, with the Teheran bazaar having been opened to business for the P5+1 members). So much for the snapback of sanctions.
If sanctions were restored, how big a deal would this be? Maybe not much, given the grandfathering of sanctions relief for companies which have made deals with Iran before any violations were identified and any action taken. Even more important, the money released to the mullahs -- up to $150 billion -- might all be in their terror funding bank accounts by the time the parties to the Iran deal decided to take action, causing more Iranian-directed mayhem in Israel, Yemen, Syria and Iraq, and maybe places further afield.
The Obama administration secured fewer than 40% of members of Congress to back the agreement, but some polls suggest that among the American population the support level for the deal is barely half of that -- in the 20% range. That is below even the meager support which Obamacare has mustered at any time since its passage. And unlike the Iran deal, Obamacare needed a positive majority vote to pass the health care reform package. In the administration's Iran deal win, victory was achieved by not losing as decisively as required for the agreement to be rejected (only 62% opposed, instead of 67%).
One might argue that the administration avoided a huge defeat by its lobbying effort, but has nonetheless lost the argument in the court of public opinion, and among the majority of the Congress. And just like with Obamacare, opponents are not going away. There may be continued and regular congressional action demanding new sanctions, challenges in court on whether the Corker bill's 60-day review clock ever really started since the side agreements were never submitted for review and continued trashing of the accord by Republican presidential contenders. Virtually all of the Democrats in Congress who supported the president issued statements about the many things that did not satisfy them in the agreement and other steps that might need to be taken to help our allies. This suggests that the misgivings about Kerry's surrender to his negotiating counterparts were in fact very bipartisan. With Trump regularly trumpeting that America keeps losing, that we get beaten by Mexico and China and Iran, this has become a widespread perception and will remain so, regardless of Trump's future success (or lack thereof) in the nominating process.
One other fallout of the Iran review process is that mainstream Jewish organizations -- Jewish federations in major cities, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee all opposed the agreement. The administration could find fewer than 5% of America's rabbis to sign onto a letter supporting the agreement. While a majority of American Jews remain liberal Democrats, American Jews who care about Israel are now increasingly alienated from Obama. If the survival of Israel is issue No. 10 in the constellation of things to worry about for some Jews (after preserving abortion rights, defending Planned Parenthood, saving the planet from climate change and battling income inequality), supporting the president on this deal was a no-brainer for them. That is because, for most of this crowd, no brain time was devoted to consideration of the deal that had just been agreed to. For those Jews who took this agreement very seriously, however, the verdict was overwhelmingly negative.
During the last Republican debate, one of the contenders mentioned that there were no countries where America is better regarded and respected today than it was before Obama took office. That may not be true -- Iran and Cuba might qualify, at least on the street. But do the Cuban leaders or the Iranian mullahs respect Obama more? They might, if you gain respect for a baby after taking its candy. Most Americans have also concluded the Iran agreement was a one-sided deal and we lost. If a different political party gets to occupy the White House in January 2017, it might well be that this Iran agreement and the weakness it conveyed about Obama and the Democrats' foreign policy had a lot to do with it.
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