How Would a GOP-Controlled Senate Affect US-Iran Negotiations?
In the first of a series of reports from The Real News, we look at how a change in party leadership would change U.S. foreign policy on Iran
THOMAS HEDGES, TRNN PRODUCER: As the November midterm election campaigns intensify, prospects of a Republican majority in the Senate are growing stronger. Forecasts are varied among major news sources, but only in their margin of victory. Just this week, The New York Times predicted a 64 percent likely win; The Washington Post, 93 percent. The House is already under Republican control and most likely going to stay that way after the elections next month. Many are bracing themselves for a new kind of political theater, one in which the GOP’s voice will be significantly amplified.
This is the first of a string of reports coming from The Real News Network that will take a look at how a Republican-led Senate would affect current policies. The lens for each issue takes the form of Senate committees, political platforms that will undergo major reconfigurations if Republicans seize the Senate.
In this edition, we’ll focus on the arena of foreign policy and, more specifically, the U.S. negotiations with Iran, which for many seem to be the most susceptible to change of course if the GOP does indeed win over the Senate. With the deadline for an agreement set for the end of November, a lot hinges on the developments over the next month that’ll conclude a year-long round of talks.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: If you phrase the question where are you going to see a change because of the Republicans, then I think Iran is going to be one of the biggest issues, at least in your face, immediately, in the short term.
HEDGES: Lawrence Wilkerson is a retired army colonel and former chief of staff to Colin Powell. He says a Republican victory in the Senate jeopardizes the progress already made in the negotiations.
WILKERSON: Now, there are people in my party and people in the Democratic Party, like Robert Menendez in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee right now, who are opposed to this for differing reasons. And this will give the Senate, which is arguably the more powerful body of the Congress with respect to these kinds of agreements, more reason and more people and more wherewithal to oppose the president on these issues.
HEDGES: The current phase of negotiations began last November when the United States and Iran, along with the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, often called P5+1, agreed to a preliminary and temporary nuclear deal. The initial agreement would ask Iran to roll back its nuclear program in exchange for a piecemeal removal of sanctions against the country.
KATE GOULD, MIDDLE EAST POLICY ANALYST, FRIENDS COUNCIL ON NATIONAL LEGISLATION: Within the U.S. sanctions, there are those that have been imposed by the president and those that have been imposed by Congress. And in the congressional sanctions, many of these sanctions–in fact, most of them–allow for the president to suspend sanctions against Iran for a certain amount of time.
HEDGES: Kate Gould is a Middle East policy analyst at the Friends Council on National Legislation. She argues that the uproar over the negotiations between Congress and the White House is an unnecessary source of tension.
GOULD: When they authored these sanctions, they allowed for the president to lift sanctions. And now that the president is talking about possibly using that legal authority, then some in Congress are objecting to that. But it was actually in the legislation that they authored and they voted for.
Many of these waivers the president’s allowed to use, these are temporary waivers. They may last for six months; they may last longer. They could be renewed after six months. They could renew it again. But for an actual permanent lifting of sanctions, that’s something that only Congress can do.
So it is expected that in any kind of final nuclear deal, for the first two years of an agreement, the president would lift sanctions, would suspend sanctions for a temporary amount of time to make sure that Iran is complying with the deal. And then, about two years in, Congress would be asked to then lift sanctions permanently. And in exchange, Iran would have to make even further concessions on their nuclear program.
HEDGES: As of today, Gould says, the opposition to a deal with Iran reflects a minority voice within Congress. Only a couple of dozen representatives, she says, are actively resisting the negotiations. But if the GOP does win, the ascension of Republican members to key positions within certain Senate committees threatens the current path to an agreement.
WILKERSON: Yeah, the committee structure, in terms of the midterms, if the Republicans win a majority in the Senate (it’ll probably be a small one) will be a problem for the president, because we have some people who will be going to the committee chairmanships, maybe even John McCain in Senate Armed Services, who’s contesting the rule that you can’t serve after having served six years before. And that’s going to change what the committees deal with. It’s going to change how they deal with what they deal with. And it’s going to change it in a way that’s probably going to be antithetical to the president’s wishes. So, yes, it’s going to have an impact.
HEDGES: That impact could be seen in two other committees, the Committee on Foreign Relations and the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, committees that deal most closely with the U.S.-Iran negotiations.
GOULD: Most people don’t think about the Banking Committee, but that actually is the committee where they have jurisdiction over sanctions legislation. It affects banks, of course.
HEDGES: With Senate Democrat and current chair of the Committee on Banking Tim Johnson set to step down at the end of this year, the change in committee leadership could see its Republican ranking member, Mike Crapo, take up the position. While Crapo doesn’t hold such a hardline approach as his constituents, his moderate stance and acceptance of renewed Iran sanctions stand opposed to the more progressive measures Johnson has taken. For example, earlier this year, Senator Johnson played a key role in organizing ten chairs of separate Senate committees to sign on to a letter opposing any new sanctions against Iran. In the wake of a Republican victory, Gould predicts a similar move against the negotiations in the Committee on Foreign Relations.
GOULD: Currently it’s chaired by Senator Robert Menendez, and he was the champion, he was the lead sponsor of a bill to try to oppose new sanctions on Iran that would violate the first-step nuclear agreement earlier this year.
His ranking member, the ranking member of the committee right now, is Senator Corker. So he could very likely be the new chair if this switches to Republican leadership. Senator Corker has actually not been at the forefront of pushing for more sanctions, but what he has pushed for is a joint resolution of disapproval of a nuclear agreement with Iran. So this is legislation he has right now. He has about a dozen senators, all Republicans, who have supported it, saying that the administration, in any kind of nuclear deal, they would have to actually submit it to Congress for an up or down vote, which, of course, is not about real diplomacy, is not about making sure that Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon and having respect for the very sensitive diplomatic process, but instead it’s about political gamesmanship. He has also supported a legislation that outlines in very stark terms what an Iran nuclear agreement would look like. So it has some very onerous conditions that would essentially require Iran to dismantle its nuclear program, which–all the negotiators that actually work with Iran know that’s entirely unrealistic. Iran is not going to give up its nuclear enrichment program.
HEDGES: Gould notes the potential for other voices to be bolstered in the event of a Republican-controlled Senate. AIPAC, for example, has launched a large campaign to encourage representatives in challenging Obama on the lifting of any sanctions, even temporary. Others, like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, advocate authorizing the use of force.
Again, there’s also a proposal by Senator Lindsey Graham, who wouldn’t be in a leadership position, but, because of his party affiliation with Republicans, could be seen as given more authority in these matters of pushing for what–his legislative proposal that he actually warned of bringing up last year, which was an authorization for the use of military force against Iran.
HEDGES: And while for many the prospects of a new war with Iran seem unlikely, both Wilkerson and Gould warn that failure to reach an agreement may very well redirect American foreign policy down a path that could ultimately lead to the use of military force in the region.
GOULD: I mean, that’s really what is the alternative. Like, if we don’t get a nuclear deal, then we could be seen that just like we saw with Iraq, where first sanctions are presumably imposed for some kind of behavior change, for concerns about weapons of mass destruction, then quickly that logic changes, as we saw with Iraq. Then, when Madeleine Albright was asked about, well, are we going to lift sanctions against Iraq, since Saddam Hussein was letting in weapons inspectors–and the answer was no, not until there’s regime change. And so sanctions, they take on a life of their own, and no longer are they used for behavior change; they’re seen as just a way for the U.S. to provoke regime change.
WILKERSON: What do we do if the Iranian deal fails, as you say? What do we do? Do we bomb Tehran? There’s no surer way to put a decision in the heads of the clerics, the IRG, and others to go nuclear. I would predict that within a year they will have tested a nuclear weapon if we bomb them.
The only way to stop them from having a nuclear weapon through hard power is to muster a half a million forces, invade Iran, occupy it for ten years, spend $2 trillion. And at the end of the ten years and the expenditure of all that taxpayer money, I defy anyone to say there’s a success in sight.
HEDGES: For The Real News, Thomas Hedges, Washington.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.