A new congressional realism on Iran?

A new congressional realism on Iran?

Joel Rubin
Joel Rubin

WASHINGTON — The recent diplomatic breakthrough with Iran was a dramatic, if fragile, success. There’s a lot more work that the Obama administration must do to ensure that a final agreement can be achieved that verifiably prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. A verifiable deal is the best way to prevent an Iranian bomb, especially when compared to the alternatives of either an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program or military action to stop it.

And because Congress will weigh in on any final deal, it’s worth asking whether Congress will allow diplomacy to run its course or will instead play the role of spoiler.

The last few weeks on Capitol Hill have provided a test case for this question, and despite the rancor and tumult, it’s become increasingly clear that the mood in Congress is tipping toward diplomacy.

Specifically, Congress chose to buck conventional wisdom and avoided passing new sanctions legislation this past month. By doing so, it gave clear support to the diplomatic path, as more sanctions at this time would have undermined the recently negotiated agreement with Iran.  

This was an important turning point on the path toward a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis, as Congress could easily have taken a more bellicose path.

So how did we get here?

The Obama administration has Iran in a bind through intensive sanctions and global isolation. And when moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani was elected as president of Iran, after running on a platform of economic reform, international engagement and nuclear compromise, the administration smartly chose to use that leverage to explore whether Iran was willing to deal. The U.S. national security team began exploring the potential for a breakthrough with Iran through back channel contacts, some begun even prior to Rouhani’s election.

At the same time, the American public made its preference for diplomacy over military action loud and clear, particularly when the public expressed its opposition to bombing Syria because of its use of chemical weapons. And as backdrop, the American people twice elected the candidate who preferred diplomacy toward Iran over war in the past two national elections, providing President Obama with a mandate for this approach.  

Taken together, these events set the stage for a breakthrough. During the September meetings of United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York, President Obama made the leap and called President Rouhani, while Secretary of State Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif met in earnest.  Since then we have witnessed the most intensive period of diplomacy between Iran and the United States since the fall of the Shah.

As a result, we now have a first phase nuclear deal with Iran that restricts its nuclear program for the first time in a decade.  This deal eliminates the most dangerous nuclear materials in Iran’s possession, opens up Iran’s nuclear program to unprecedented inspections, and creates a diplomatic process for permanently resolving this crisis.

A month after the agreement, it’s clear that Congress has mixed feelings about the nuclear deal, but that it was also unwilling to block negotiations at this time, thereby creating the opportunity for a realistic middle path that keeps the pressure on but doesn’t go too far.  

By choosing to not pass new sanctions now, Congress avoided violating a key provision of the first step deal with Iran, and essentially endorsed the current agreement. Multiple pro-Israel senators, including Dianne Feinstein, Jay Rockefeller and Carl Levin, spoke in favor of these negotiations with Iran.

Congress got to this place because of deep American public support for diplomacy over war.  But this moment is not destined to be a permanent state of affairs. Congress can always change course if pressured to do so.  But its recent decision to play a constructive and realistic oversight role of the negotiations, rather than spoiler, should give us hope.

The growing support in Congress for diplomacy is politically smart. According to a recent poll of American voters by Hart Research Associates, the public overwhelmingly supports congressional patience. Sixty-seven percent of voters polled supported giving the recent nuclear deal and further negotiations with Iran a chance to work before congressional enactment of new economic sanctions, which could have put the negotiations at risk.

Building on the current fragile foundation of the nuclear agreement and congressional support for it will not be easy, but it can be done — especially if Congress continues to choose diplomacy over actions that undermine it.  By having done so in recent weeks, a new congressional realism about nuclear diplomacy with Iran may be sinking in, thereby strengthening our country’s ability to avoid both an Iranian bomb and another harmful American war in the Middle East.

(Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at the Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at joelr@thejewishchronicle.net or Twitter.com/JoelMartinRubin. His views are his own and not necessarily those of Ploughshares Fund.)