Diplomats in Lausanne, Switzerland, have extended their deadline on a framework accord on Iran’s nuclear program. But even if an agreement is reached this week, it’s merely a way station toward a comprehensive deal that is due by June 30.
If a deal is reached, who needs to approve it?
If the six world powers – the United States, Britain, Russia, China, France and Germany – negotiating with Iran manage to reach a final deal, Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei still must grant his approval and President Obama will have to overcome opposition in Congress.
The deal need not be subject to a congressional vote, but there are several ways Congress could scuttle it anyway. Opponents could assemble a veto-proof congressional majority for a bill that either negates the deal or makes implementation extremely difficult – like delaying the lifting of sanctions until Iran satisfies certain conditions, or automatically reinstating them if Iran supports a terrorist act.
While Congress alone has the authority to permanently suspend congressional sanctions against Iran, the president has the power to temporarily waive them. In practice, that means Obama can circumvent Congress indefinitely by continually suspending sanctions – much the same way the president invokes a national security waiver every six months to avoid implementing the 1995 law requiring the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Why is Israel so against a deal?
The Israeli government believes a bad deal is worse than no deal. At best, the deal under consideration would leave Iran with the capability to produce a weapon – its so-called breakout time – in about a year. At worst, Tehran would continue secret work toward a bomb while capitalizing on the easing of sanctions to reinforce the Islamic regime and expand its power abroad.
Despite his bluster, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel says he’s not against a deal, just this particular one. The Israelis believe that the harsher the sanctions regime against Iran and the tougher Washington’s negotiating stance, the more concessions they’ll be able to get from Iran. U.S. officials believe additional sanctions would scuttle the talks and that Israel’s expectations for a deal are unrealistic.
What are Israel’s alternatives?
The Israeli government will continue to push for sanctions against Iran with the hope that they hobble the Islamic regime, either toppling it or forcing it back to the negotiating table under more favorable terms for the West. Meanwhile, Israel likely will continue its clandestine efforts to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program, including tactics like Stuxnet, a software virus designed to destroy Iranian centrifuges. Israel is also believed to have been behind the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists.
It’s not clear whether Israel has a viable military option. Aside from the diplomatic consequences of a military strike, the geography of Iran’s nuclear facilities – multiple sites, dispersed and underground – makes it highly unlikely that Israel would be able to wipe out Iran’s nuclear program as successfully as it did Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 or a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007. An Israeli attack on Iran also is likely to set off harsh responses from Tehran, its Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon and its allies elsewhere in the region. Reprisals might not be limited to Israel, and could include Israeli and Jewish targets abroad.
What are America’s alternatives?
While the United States has never officially taken the military option off the table, Obama is exceedingly unlikely ever to use it. Aside from the difficulty of mounting a successful attack on Iran’s nuclear installations, Obama is not likely to take such an extreme step given his cautious nature, the rapport the U.S. administration has built with the Iranians and the lack of international consensus for such a move.
Obama may try again with the Iranians if a deal is not reached by the June 30 deadline. But if Congress strengthens sanctions first and the Iranians balk at returning to the negotiating table, the most likely outcome is that Obama goes back to Chicago without an agreement when his term expires in 22 months, leaving the problem for the next U.S. president to resolve.
How is the rest of the Middle East reacting to a prospective Iran deal?
There is great concern among the region’s Sunni Arab regimes (Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Persian Gulf nations) that Washington’s pursuit of a deal with Tehran is widening Shiite Iran’s regional influence and power. Since the 2003 Iraq War, Iranian allies have taken over in Iraq, Lebanon and now Yemen. While Sunni Arab governments regard the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State (ISIS) as a threat, they don’t want them replaced with Iranian proxies either.
Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt long have relied on cozy relationships with Washington, but things have cooled in tandem with Washington’s negotiations with Tehran. The relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has devolved into bitterness and dysfunction; Cairo has been kept at arm’s length since the Egyptian military deposed the democratically elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, and installed Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi in his place; and Saudi Arabia feels it doesn’t have the U.S. administration’s ear when it comes to Iran.
So these countries have been taking matters into their own hands. Netanyahu has bypassed the White House in trying to marshal U.S. opposition to an Iran deal. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes with support from Egypt and Gulf regimes to counter the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who overran the U.S.-backed Yemeni president and prompted U.S. officials in the country to flee.
If these Sunni Arab regimes now believe they can’t rely on the United States to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, they’re likely to pursue nuclear weapons, too. So might Turkey, igniting a regional arms race.