Iran is a mess: What you need to know about "crunch time" for the nuclear deal

The Iran nuclear talks appear poised to continue through June. Senate Democrats have a huge choice to make

Published March 31, 2015 5:12PM (EDT)

Harry Reid       (Jeff Malet,
Harry Reid (Jeff Malet,

Happy Iran nuclear deal day! By which we mean, happy Iran nuclear tentative political agreement day! By which we mean... happy Iran nuclear tentative political understanding day?

If various reports from Lausanne are correct, there are going to be a few more months of negotiations, if that's okay with the Ayatollah. Negotiators have not been able to resolve the difficult issues -- the schedule for lifting various layers of sanctions, what sort of nuclear R&D Iran would be allowed to continue -- to the extent that they were hoping to by now. The idea was to get the deal in place by the end of March and then fill in the technical details by June.  Now it will be more about getting everything in place by the end of June. Secretary of State John Kerry will be disappointed with the progress, at least he'll have three more months to go cycling in Europe's most beautiful resort locales.

Is this thing going to happen? Right now the biggest threats are political opposition back home for each side. Conservatives in the United States and Iran both see negotiations progressing to an unacceptable state. Republicans, and some Democrats, see Kerry as giving away everything to Iran upfront in exchange for some non-binding Iranian promises that it may break down the road. Hard-liners in Iran see foreign minister Mohammad Zarif Javad giving away everything to P5+1 upfront in exchange for some non-binding P5+1 promises that it may break down the road.

Zarif and President Rouhani will be responsible for resolving their own opposition; Kerry and President Obama will be responsible for resolving ours. It's important that American domestic politics not cause the deal to fall through, for a couple of reasons. The first is that if a deal fell through, that would be bad! But also, if a deal is going to fall through, it's mighty important that that be on Iran, rather than on the inability of the United States to get its shit together.

Republicans want a deal to fall through by whatever means possible. You may have noticed? The good news is that Republicans can't achieve this on their own. The GOP has congressional majorities, but they do not have congressional veto-proof majorities. They can howl all they want, but if they don't have Democratic buy-in, it doesn't matter.

The bad news is that they do have Democratic buy-in. Even after all of the drama surrounding Netanyahu's address to Congress and Tom Cotton's letter to Iran, that merely delayed votes on pieces of legislation that would give Iran excuses to walk away from the table.

In mid-April, as soon as it returns from Easter recess, the Senate will vote on the Corker-Menendez bill requiring congressional review of a nuclear deal with Iran. This bill has several provisions that could disrupt negotiations. Chief among them, though, is the provision that gives Congress 60 days before the President can lift sanctions -- not just congressional sanctions, which are going to be their own problem down the road, but administrative sanctions. Iranian negotiators are already having enough problems convincing Ayatollah Khamenei to accept a deal that doesn't lift all sanctions immediately. If Congress passes a bill over the president's veto that wouldn't allow any sanctions to be lifted immediately, then that's a deal-breaker.

It is, of course, intended to be a deal-breaker. So why are Senate Democrats even considering voting for this? Well, some of them are owned by AIPAC. Others, though, just want their say. You can't blame them. Congress should be allowed to have its say, in things! But Senate Democrats should realize that Corker-Menendez is not an honest, good-faith piece of legislation. The Republican party has no interest in actually giving a fair-minded assessment of a deal. The idea is to kill any deal, and if that's not clear to Senate Democrats by now, I don't know what to say. Democrats who are open to giving a fair-minded assessment of the deal will not have their say. Senate Republicans will have it for them.

(Besides, Congress won't be completely excluded from this process. It will eventually have to sign off on the lifting of congressional sanctions. God knows how that ever gets through. The theory, at least, is that if Iran can prove that it's abided by the first phases of the agreement, international pressure will force Congress's hand. Heh. Anyway, that can be dealt with... later.)

Perhaps some Senate Democrats who would make up the veto-proof majority are concerned that the Obama administration no longer has the public's support. But a new Washington Post-ABC News poll suggests that it's Congress that's to the right of the public on this. By a 59% to 31% majority, the public supports "an agreement in which the United States and its negotiating partners lift major economic sanctions in exchange for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program." Among Democrats, that figure is 68-22; among liberals, 72-20.

There are still broad doubts about the long-term efficacy of the deal. But if Iran breaks the deal, then the deal is off. People are willing to give diplomacy with Iran a shot. Why shouldn't Senate Democrats be willing to do the same?

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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