Selling the Iran Deal

Four arguments the Obama administration will use to win over Congress

With lawmakers a little over a month into the sixty-day congressional review period for the Iran nuclear agreement or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), US President Barack Obama’s administration is racing to secure votes of approval from undecided congressmen. The President has already pledged to veto a congressional rejection, but the possibility that Republicans could rally the forty-four House and thirteen Senate Democrats necessary to override a veto has the administration pushing hard to shore up support.

Featuring testimony from high-ranking officials, extensive online and media coverage, and, most recently, Obama’s speech at American University, the White House has spared no effort in its campaign to win over public and congressional opinions.

In his speech, the President trumpeted the deal’s strengths, like the fifteen-year ban on new heavy water reactors and enrichment at the Fordow facility, the intrusive inspections regime, and snapback sanctions. He also noted that while Iran stands to receive at least $56 billion in unfrozen assets as a result of sanctions relief, much of this money will go toward “urgent requirements” in domestic spending rather than foreign meddling, and vowed “there is no scenario where sanctions relief turns Iran into the region’s dominant power.” The speech offered insights into how the President plans to ramp up pressure on lawmakers. As Congress’ September 17 deadline approaches, the White House will push four key points to sell the deal:

1.     The international community expects US support for the deal and American leadership.

Positive international consensus will constitute a central pillar of the White House’s strategy to win broader acceptance of the deal. The United Nations Security Council already voted unanimously to support the deal and begin lifting its own sanctions after ninety days. The European Union did the same, ratcheting up international pressure on Congress. By framing the discussion as “the most consequential foreign policy debate that our country has had since the invasion of Iraq,” Obama compared the deal’s detractors to the Iraq invasion’s supporters, who forewent international consensus for costly unilateral action. If Congress blocks the deal “over the objection of the vast majority of the world,” the United States would lose its “credibility as a leader of diplomacy… the anchor of the international system,” Obama said.

2.     This is an arms limitation agreement. Period.

An important part of the White House’s strategy involves emphasizing that Iran’s destabilizing activities in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and beyond are not tied to the nuclear deal. Obama claimed that it is “the strongest nonproliferation agreement ever negotiated,” aiming to set the deal’s parameters and avoid what international negotiators call “issue linkage.” Avoiding linking Iran’s interference in other states and support of proxy groups such as Hezbollah to the nuclear agreement distances it from congressional criticism and ensures, in Obama’s words, that it “must be judged by what it achieves on the central goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” Iran’s continued compliance is the key determinant of the deal’s success and the only foundation upon which future diplomatic relations can be built.

3.     Israel’s concerns are legitimate, but are addressed by the deal.

Acknowledging Iran’s troubling anti-Israel rhetoric and the threat that it poses through its proxies, Obama called concern for Israel’s security a “more understandable motivation behind the opposition to this deal,” but bluntly labeled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assessment of the agreement “wrong.” Indeed, Netanyahu’s characterization of the deal as an “historic mistake” has been hotly contested by some in Israel’s security establishment who believe it to be positive. Six Israeli Generals denounced the Prime Minister’s March visit to Washington to attack the negotiations; more recently, dozens of others, alongside former heads of the country’s internal security and intelligence service, publicly urged him to accept the deal. The Obama administration will point to its offer to increase Israeli military aid to historic levels as an effort to bolster Israel’s security interests.

4.     Failure to reach an agreement will lead to war.

Finally, a repeated refrain from administration officials is that the alternative to the nuclear agreement is war. The President was blunt in his speech: “Congressional rejection of this deal leaves any US administration that is absolutely committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon with one option — another war in the Middle East… Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon.” US Secretary of State John Kerry has raised the same point in interviews and during congressional hearings.

The White House’s first three arguments are compelling; the fourth is less so.

On the first, US acceptance is critical to the implementation and ongoing enforcement of the agreement, as the United States marshaled international support for the crippling sanctions that led Iran to the negotiating table. Enforcing punishment for cheating without US backing could be difficult if global trade starts to reopen; Russia and China, who align themselves with Iran on Syria and other regional issues, might be tempted to break away. Key allies are concerned a negative US vote could also empower hardliners in Tehran to reject the deal and rule out any future nuclear negotiations. If Congress ignores the international community’s support, Iran could end up with limited sanctions relief and none of the nuclear deal’s constraints.

On the second, avoiding issue linkage crucially allows the United States to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities without jeopardizing the deal. Obama won Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state support for the deal by pledging close military cooperation against Iran’s threats at his May summit with Gulf leaders as nuclear negotiations were ongoing. Delinking the agreement from Iran’s support for a Syrian regime that continues to perpetrate atrocities against its people is painful, and opponents will point to such behavior as evidence of Iran’s untrustworthiness. But avoiding linkage kept Iran at the negotiating table, and makes the deal a confidence building measure toward opening a gradual dialogue on other regional security challenges.

On the third, aligning with opposition to Netanyahu is a sensible (and ironic) strategy, albeit a slightly risky one. The support of Israeli security leaders and former diplomats lends the deal’s concern for Israel’s security some credibility, and support among progressive Jewish groups and a plurality of American Jews gives the administration some domestic cover. Nonetheless, the gap between various US Jewish constituencies is deep, and, as ranking Democratic Jewish Sen. Chuck Schumer’s vote shows, does not always break along partisan lines. Increasing the “temporary friction” with Netanyahu’s government could lead to dismay among domestic audiences.

On the fourth, however, posing war as the alternative to a deal is a rhetorical flourish that stokes partisan fires and precludes discussion of more salient criticisms, such as lifting sanctions on conventional weapons and ballistic missiles after five and eight years, respectively. The “deal or war” dichotomy highlights that failure to reach a deal could lead to Iran’s continuing enrichment which, if it reaches a certain level, might require a military strike against an Iranian facility. While a sobering and realistic hypothetical, the message as presented plays into the rhetoric of some of the agreement’s more bellicose opponents, who pose military strikes as a more effective option than diplomacy with a nation they see as destined to cheat. In the end, the question of any potential use of military force against Iran should be discussed in serious, concrete terms.

Whether or not these points resonate with Congress will be decided by September 17. Though some supporters are confident that they will be able to withstand a vote to override a presidential veto, Schumer’s opposition has kept opponents’ hopes alive for the time being. Obama will be able to claim a major foreign policy victory near the end of his term should the deal pass; however, the hard work of ensuring Iran’s compliance, while containing its non-nuclear threat, will have only just begun.

Owen Daniels is a program assistant at the Middle East Peace and Security Initiative of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

Image: "Congressional rejection of this deal leaves any US administration that is absolutely committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon with one option—another war in the Middle East," US President Barack Obama said in an August 5 speech at American University in Washington in which he defended a nuclear deal with Iran. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)