Strange Bedfellows: Iran may consider cooperating with the US in fighting Sunni extremist fighters in Iraq if Washington acts against them, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said June 14 in Tehran. (ATTA KENARE/ / AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — With less than a month left before a temporary six-month deal designed to allow nuclear talks between Iran and the US expires, US officials are scrambling to get an agreement done as Congress continues to inject itself into the conversation.
The deadline looms against the backdrop of the worsening security situation in Iraq that, oddly enough, could make it easier for the US and Iran to find common ground as both countries find themselves on the same side of that conflict.
The long-sought nuclear deal, which would halt progress on Iran’s nuclear weapons program while also building in increased monitoring in exchange for the relaxation of US and EU sanctions, is still being hammered out with a July 20 deadline fast approaching. Both the Obama administration and the Iranian government have expressed optimism that a deal can be done.
“We can get this done,” a senior US administration official said on a conference call with reporters. “It is possible to get it done. We should be focused on getting it. It’s all within sight, and we think [if] we need a few more days, I don’t think anyone will care.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also voiced optimism on June 14.
“I believe that the July 20 deadline can be met despite remaining disputes,” he said. “If not, we can continue the talks for a month or more.”
Although the administration has been careful to keep discussion limited to Iran’s nuclear program, other factors may be conspiring to help bring Iran and the US closer. In a rare development, both countries find themselves on the same side of the unraveling security situation in Iraq. Iran is looking to help the only other major Shia government in the region against a Sunni minority, and the US is grappling with how to support a country it’s waged war against twice and attempted to rebuild once at the cost of thousands of lives.
Even the specter of a deal has affected Middle East security policy, as sources indicated the United Arab Emirates backed out of a deal to buy Typhoon fighter jets in December partially because of the interim agreement between Iran and the US. If a deal is done, the enormous buildup of military spending by Iran’s regional neighbors may well slacken.
Experts also warn that the precedent set by the deal will be used elsewhere.
“The technical compromises we make, however merited they may be or not, will also have strategic implications,” Michael Singh, managing director at the Washington Institute, said in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on June 19. “They’ll send messages to folks in the region, especially if we’re moving back from a position that we once held. And we need to make sure that we communicate what we’re doing very clearly and that we take into account those strategic implications when we make compromises.”
Former US ambassador to the UN Thomas Pickering, testifying during the same hearing, emphasized that although negotiations may be unpalatable, there are severe limits to the usefulness of military force.
“The use of military force by Israel or the United States at best, according to the best experts’ estimations, could set the Iran program back only two to four years,” he said. “It would not eliminate it. Iran’s nuclear capability is unfortunately in the minds of its scientists at the moment, which can’t be taken out by the use of force alone.”
Both Pickering and Singh were speaking at one of a rash of congressional hearings that have picked up pace in recent weeks. Late last year, several members of Congress began to inject themselves into the negotiating process by suggesting that new sanctions be added to Iran that would take effect after the July 20 deadline if no deal were reached.
Administration officials worked hard to beat back those efforts, including twisting the arms of several Democrats, saying that any sanctions, even if only scheduled to take effect later, would violate a no-new-sanctions component of the temporary nuclear agreement.
“We’re asking you to give our negotiators and our experts the time and the space to do their jobs, and that includes asking you, while we negotiate, that you hold off imposing new sanctions,” Secretary of State John Kerry testified Dec. 10 before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Since that effort was defeated, attention has shifted to the scope of the negotiations, which the administration has insisted on limiting to the nuclear program and not tossing in other areas, such as human rights issues or Iran’s funding of radical and terrorist organizations. On June 17, the chairman and the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs committee sent a letter to President Barack Obama emphasizing their concerns about the scope of the negotiations, while also insisting that Congress play a greater role.
“Our two branches of government have long been partners in working to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability,” the letter said. “However, as these hugely consequential national security decisions are made, greater cooperation between Congress and the executive branch is essential, given that any permanent sanctions relief demands congressional approval.”
That latter point, the need for congressional approval to lift sanctions as part of any deal, isn’t entirely accurate, said Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service.
Katzman, speaking at the Atlantic Council on June 16, said Obama can waive just about every sanction in place.
“The administration has ample authority to waive sanctions laws,” he said.
Those waivers don’t permanently eliminate the sanctions as the letter mentions. Iran could push for the permanent removal of sanctions, although Katzman said he expects Iran’s leaders wouldn’t care as long as the sanctions are effectively lifted.
But as an interesting note, much of the sanctions regime is built on the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996, which has an end date.
“It’s the only sanctions law that I can think of that has a specific sunset date,” Katzman said.
The current extension runs through the end of 2016. That means that if a deal were struck, and if Congress never achieves a veto-proof majority on extending the sanctions, Obama could permanently cancel some of them by simply allowing the law to expire.
Whether a deal can be reached in time is unclear as both countries have kept details secret. But the subject of an extension, if one is needed, could pose problems. Congress, already chafing at not being included in the process, may step in with new sanctions that could complicate the process.
“There is no automatic extension here; it has to be mutually agreed to,” the senior administration official said. “And there are no terms for an extension. So it could be that there is absolutely nothing to gain for Iran by asking for an extension should they want to do so. And we know that in the United States there are many strong feelings about keeping focused on getting this agreement done so that the international community can have confidence and assurance that Iran’s program is entirely peaceful. So right now we are entirely focused on July 20.” ■