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Beyond the Beltway

Will the administration’s congressional testimony on Iran tilt the balance?

Getting ready for Congress. Gary Cameron/Reuters

In an all-out promotional blitz, John Kerry spoke at a hastily arranged Q&A July 24 to a Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Five days later, he faced two less restrained audiences, testifying before the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday and turning up uninvited at a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

The Senate has a historic reputation for civility, and the House for acrimony. Kerry’s exchange with both was testy and confrontational.

The question is: what difference will it make?

Initial reactions

Clearly, congressional members in both branches feel as though they have been sidelined by the Obama administration’s approach, with no input into the negotiation process and limited access to information.

The latter problem was highlighted in the Senate hearings when Jim Inhofe vehemently chided Kerry – and his colleagues Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz – for sanctioning confidential side agreements between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency that Congress has not seen and will not see.

Kerry conceded that the executive branch has no access to the terms of these confidential agreements either, although he noted that these were standard elements of such agreements.

These hearings seemed to change few opinions among Republicans, at least publicly.

A few Democrats – in both chambers – asked questions designed to allow Kerry to elaborate on some of his key points.

Claire McCaskill, the Democrat from Missouri seen as a key figure in the voting, offered the view that her colleagues should reserve judgment until they have studied the details of the agreement. That was clearly a good sign.

Even more promisingly for the administration, two Jewish lawmakers with strong records of support for Israel, representatives Eliot Engel and Sander Levin, both threw their support behind the agreement.

The symbolic significance of their decisions cannot be overstated, given indefensible recent suggestions that American Jews would inevitably find it hard to reconcile their support for the agreement, for Israel and for the Democratic Party – and would be alienated from the party – if the agreement goes ahead.

What about the substance of Kerry’s arguments?

From the perspective of an impartial and undecided observer regarding the agreement, among which I count myself despite concerns about Iran’s credibility, Kerry and his colleagues presented a pretty compelling set of reasons to support it.

Testimony from the Departments of Defense and Energy. Gary Cameron/Reuters

Of the many they discussed in an attempt to reassure House and Senate members, I think administration officials offered five major points that are worth bearing in mind.

  • Without the agreement, Iran will move quickly to develop a nuclear capability. So this agreement will, at the very least, delay that process. A decade of sanctions have proven ineffective in stopping that process, and there will be no shortage of countries willing to assist Iran if the US doesn’t support the agreement and then pursues unilateral sanctions.

  • The US will be isolated politically, diplomatically – and by implication militarily – if Congress singlehandedly sabotages this multilateral agreement. It has a long history of doing exactly that, and the diplomatic costs will be significant if history is any guide. America’s refusal to sign the Law of the Sea, for example, is a significant hindrance in its efforts to influence the global agenda in policing the oceans in the fights against nuclear proliferation, piracy and human trafficking.

  • As both Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey made clear, the US will retain its military options, prepared to address any Iranian military aggression in the region in defense of its interests and those of its allies.

  • As Treasury Secretary Jack Lew noted, Iran will receive approximately US$55 billion in sanctions relief once the nuclear deal is implemented. This is only a fraction of the $150 billion that critics of the agreement have claimed will go to the country. So Iran’s leadership will have to choose between funding its neglected domestic programs and supporting its overseas allies and proxies from a far smaller pot of cash than some have assumed.

  • The Gulf States have signaled their support for the agreement. Kerry argued that if they, among those most threatened by any Iranian aggression, feel it doesn’t adversely affect their security, then Congress should be reassured.

Three unresolved issues

Of course, conversely, there are several residual problems that we should bear in mind. I think there are three notable ones.

The first is historic in nature, but nonetheless highly relevant at this point: the administration did a poor job of lining up congressional support before it began the negotiation process.

It might be fair to argue that administrations have historically kept things close to their chest, facing avid opposition, when it comes to negotiating nuclear agreements. Or that the hostility between this president and this Congress is so great that such outreach efforts wouldn’t have made any difference. But they seemingly didn’t try, and so we will never know.

We do know that the cost of not successfully bringing key Republican figures like John McCain on board beforehand is now there for all to see: unrelenting criticism. And the administration is now paying the price as it belatedly presses its case.

The second is a classic catch-22. Dempsey and Carter promised to maintain a muscular and decisive regional presence to thwart Iran’s ambitions. But the military’s ability to do so is dependent on the size of the defense budget. And that, with no small degree of irony, depends on what Congress decides to fund.

So while many Republicans worry about the effects of sequestration on America’s capabilities and America’s regional military posture, many in Congress keep supporting the budget cuts that will undermine the US position. In sum, Carter and Dempsey will have to rely on the Congressional Republicans if they are to deliver on their promise.

The final problem is the political one of scapegoating.

Kerry’s comment at the Council on Foreign Relations on July 24, that Israel would be isolated and blamed if the US Congress didn’t support the agreement, was ill-advised. Critics have described that as a classic case of “blame the Jews.” And his logic, to put it mildly, was problematic.

First, it implies that the Republican opposition is beholden to Benjamin Netanyahu. That is as unsubstantiated, I would argue, as are those arguments made by proponents of the view that American foreign policy is hostage to the “Jewish lobby.”

It is more reasonable to suggest that the Republican leadership finds it expedient to use the Israeli government’s objections to support their claims and oppose the president.

Second, it suggests that those same Republicans who have truculently opposed almost every one of the Obama administration’s major initiatives – from health care reform to gay marriage, from Cuba to ISIS – would now be behaving differently if Israel supported the deal. Kerry didn’t make the same claim to Congress this week, perhaps in recognizing his diplomatic misstep. But the diplomatic damage has nonetheless been done.

We now await the congressional decision in September. Let’s hope that, having vented, the Republicans will review the merits of the case in a balanced way.

One thing is for sure: the repercussions of their decision will have lasting consequences both at home and abroad.

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