Shift in Policy Toward Iran Possible After March Framework Agreement

Instead of first sending the bill through the standard committee approval process, McConnell hopes to bring it to the Senate floor for an up-or-down vote next week. If it were to pass, the bill would make any agreement between Iran and the P5+1 group of nations subject to congressional approval and would keep it in a sort of legal probation for the first 60 days, after which the US President would be required to update Congress each three months regarding Iran’s compliance.

But the bill is not expected to pass on this fast-track, and one of its co-sponsors, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, has criticized McConnell for “hijacking” the bill and privileging political posturing over practicality. Menendez promised to withhold support for his own bill until at least March 24, at which point Iran and the P5+1 will be only days away from the deadline for a framework agreement that should set the stage for a final agreement at the end of June.

As a result, the Senate cannot be expected to acquire the 60 “yes” votes that would be necessary to override the expected presidential veto of this bill, according to Reuters. But that level of support may well be in place after March, depending on the details of the framework agreement. Most Republicans and many Democrats have long advocated for a harder stance on Iran policy than President Obama has been pursuing. Some have advocated for stronger sanctions to bring Iran into agreement with a better deal and some have explicitly expressed support for the threat of military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

As it stands, the Obama administration claims that military force is still on the table, and the Jerusalem Post quotes Secretary of State spokesperson Marie Harf as saying, “If there is noncompliance of any kind… we reserve every option to act at that point. All options remain on the table.”

But some of the administration’s opponents do not take these claims seriously, and it is not clear that that Iranian regime does either. Last month, Basij commander Mohammad Reza Naghdi told the Iranian press that the United States appeared to be “begging us for a deal on the negotiation table,” and similar sentiments have been expressed by other Iranian officials, suggesting that they believe their leverage outweighs that of the United States.

Dismissal of the military threat also relates to the perception that the Obama administration is pursuing broader rapprochement with Iran and is seeking to work with it against threats that the US president perceives to be more serious, chiefly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out on Wednesday, this broader outreach has been a growing source of concern for both Israel and the Arab countries of the Middle East, including traditional US allies.

In each case, these governments disagree with Obama about the superiority of the ISIL threat, and, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, “interpret any American opening to Iran, and any relaxation of the economic sanctions that have hobbled Iran’s ability to project power, as succor to the enemy.”

Consequently, Arab displeasure over the prospective nuclear deal is reportedly as serious as that expressed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his speech to the US Congress on Tuesday. This is something that Secretary of State John Kerry attempted to address by visiting Saudi Arabia on Wednesday and outlining how the Obama administration feels a nuclear deal will be in the interest of Middle Eastern Arabs.

But if this strategy fails, it is likely that pressure from the US’s Arab allies will further motivate the US Congress to counteract the Obama administration’s outreach, even if the administration does not personally decide to reevaluate its regional strategies. Middle Eastern governments can be expected to take action of their own, as well, if they can do so without experiencing reprisal from the US. Last week it was reported that Saudi Arabia had signaled willingness to allow Israel to utilize its airspace in the event that a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities was deemed necessary.

This was only one indication of potential Arab-Israeli cooperation on this issue. The Tower reported on Wednesday that Arab media had expressed remarkable support for Prime Minister Netanyahu following his speech on Tuesday, with the Saudi daily Al-Jazira saying, “I believe that Netanyahu’s conduct will serve our interests, the people of the Gulf.”

It is possible in the coming weeks that congressional action will be able to override the Obama administration’s current Iran policy, but if this does not happen it is also possible that there will be an even greater break between the US and some of its allies, chiefly Israel. The stance of non-Middle Eastern powers is not clear across the board, but Canada’s The Star assessed the situation on Wednesday and determined that although America’s geographically and culturally closest ally has been trying to remain on the fence, the conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper would ultimately side with Israel if forced to make a choice.

Depending upon the breakdown of allegiances among other countries, the ongoing discord may open up the possibility for coordinated, multinational action against Iran’s nuclear program even without the participation of the United States.