An explicit resolution of disapproval for the deal was defeated for the third and final time on the 17th, thanks to Democratic opposition that was sufficiently unified to employ the filibuster and block the resolution from coming to a vote. But many Republicans and some Democrats have vowed to continue fighting the contentious agreement, with legal challenges being suggested alongside legislative blocks and modifications aimed at preventing the Iranian regime from accruing an estimated 150 billion dollars in short-term sanctions relief.
Many of the legislative efforts are presumed to be little more than symbolic gestures, as the vote tally for the resolution of disapproval is almost certain to be closely matched by votes on alternative measures. Now that the deal is approaching implementation following a meeting of the negotiating parties at the UN General Assembly on Monday, supporters of the president are unlikely to do anything to undermine and block a deal that they helped to get to this stage.
Nonetheless, symbolic votes may have some effect, if only on the public perception of the deal going forward into American presidential elections and future periods of enforcement. Polls find that the public is already opposed to the agreement by as much as a two-to-one margin. And some of the same polls place this in a broader context of distrust of the Iranian regime and skepticism about the prospect for it abiding by the deal.
Thursday’s House vote seeks to contribute to that perception by drawing further attention to Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and its unwillingness to take reparative steps even at a time when Iran and the West are ostensibly pursuing improved relations. The bill would bar the US President from suspending sanctions against Iran until such time as Tehran pays the 45 billion dollars it has been ordered by US courts to pay as compensation to the families of victims in past terrorist attacks that were financed and directed by the Islamist government.
Sponsors of the bill emphasize that to date, Iran has not paid one penny of that compensation and generally shows no change in its hostility toward Western nationals. Of course, critics of the Iranian regime have repeatedly pointed to other evidence of this unchanged ideology. This includes public speeches by both the Iranian supreme leader and the president urging “death to America” and resistance of cultural and political “infiltration.” It also includes Iran’s refusal to release three Americans apparently imprisoned on the basis of the connections to the West, and in one case, his Christian faith.
However, this week President Hassan Rouhani intimated that Iran would be willing to consider a prisoner swap to exchange these three Americans for 19 Iranians imprisoned in the US for violations of economic sanctions which will be lifted under the nuclear deal. But Rouhani did not outline a direct prisoner swap and instead described a situation in which the Iranian prisoners would be released in order to create the “right environment” for Tehran to consider releasing the Americans as quickly as it deems possible.
Despite the apparent imbalance of demands, US Secretary of State John Kerry intimated that he was open to discussing a swap, according to CNN. For critics of the Obama administration, this is sure to stand as further evidence that the administration is setting policy on the basis of naivety about Iran’s trustworthiness and supposed moderation under the Rouhani presidency. In the view of those critics, this naivety has already manifested itself in Obama’s declared willingness to work with Iran and Russia on a resolution to the Syrian Civil War, and in his approach to the nuclear negotiations themselves.
What’s more, those critics have continued to aggressively make their case to the media and the public in the midst of recent developments. For instance, Sven-Eric Fikenscheri of Harvard’s Belfer Center published an editorial in the National Interest on Wednesday attacking the Obama administration’s willingness to wait for moderation from within the Iranian regime. Fikenscheri conveyed much the same message as Iranian dissidents have been conveying for the past two years: that Rouhani’s apparent moderation reflects only a difference of tactics from his predecessor, not ideology.
Fikenscheri points to Rouhani’s own comments during and after the nuclear negotiations as evidence of this. For example, he notes that Rouhani advised his negotiators to “show flexibility for technical reasons” but to always remember who their “opponent and enemy” is. On the basis of observations like this, Fikenscheri makes the case that as long as the existing regime remains in place in Iran, it can never be turned from a foe into a friend. He allows that there is room for limited cooperation against mutual enemies like ISIL, but cautions that the focus of American policy should be to solidify alliances that will help the US to stand up against expanding Iranian influence in the Middle East.
Netanyahu’s speech was expected to make much the same point, according to the Times of Israel. The Israeli perspective on this is made arguably more relevant by the fact that Obama’s policy of rapprochement apparently contributed to deterioration in relations between the US executive and Israel, which had traditionally been his main ally in the region.
At the same time, relations between the US and Saudi Arabia have at times seemed similarly strained by contrasting perspectives on the Iranian threat. The Saudis have at times acted against the Obama administration’s preferences in confronting Iran as part of an Arab coalition, especially in the case of what is largely an Iranian-Saudi proxy war in Yemen. And Saudi Arabia seems poised to only recognize greater threats from Iran even as the West struggles to implement the nuclear deal and maintain an atmosphere of improved relations.
Agence-France Presse reports that the Saudis seized an Iranian boat on Saturday which was in the process of smuggling additional arms through the Arabian Sea and presumably to the Houthi rebels, who recently lost their hold on the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. This comes at roughly the same time that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei directly threatened the Saudi government.
According to CNN, Khamenei accused the Saudis of acting too slowly in repatriating the bodies of Iranian citizens killed in last week’s hajj stampede. He used this as pretense to discuss possible “retaliation” against Iran’s main regional rival, thus prompting Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir to repeat his accusation that the Iranian regime is politicizing the tragedy in order to reinforce the regime’s longstanding hostilities.