It may be hard to believe after congressional infighting shut down the government this week, but Republicans and Democrats do agree on something: Iran should not be trusted. New Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's recent charm offensive promising political latitude in nuclear negotiations has fallen flat on Capitol Hill, as did the Obama administration's optimism that sanctions against Iran could be lifted, even within months, if the parties reach a "good deal" with fail-safe measures ensuring that Tehran's nuclear program is peaceful.
President Obama may not like it, but Congress holds the power over sanctions, his main bargaining chip. The financial noose around Iran is mandated by Congress, and it can only be lifted by Congress—and there's no guarantee lawmakers will agree with whatever the White House considers an acceptable deal.
"The president actually will be conducting two sets of negotiations: one with the Iranians, the other with members of Congress," says James Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations. "He's going to have to convince the Iranians to give up significant parts of their nuclear program, and then turn around and persuade members of Congress the Iranian concessions are enough and they're verifiable. Otherwise, he gets nothing."
Even though U.S. intelligence suggests that Iran has not yet decided to build a nuclear weapon, many members of Congress believe, as Israel does, that Tehran is scrambling to acquire one. Members have proved determined, uniting across party lines, at times to buck objections by the administration and impose wide-ranging sanctions. They've written into law that most of the sanctions, some in place since the 1990s, cannot be lifted until the president certifies (by providing evidence to a skeptical Congress) that Iran no longer sponsors terrorism and has dismantled its nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, as well as its ballistic missiles and launch technology.
During negotiations, such assurances would be virtually impossible to get, and Congress is unlikely to change the law to accommodate either Obama or the mullahs. So the president has the legal option to temporarily waive sanctions, usually for a period of four months at a time, by certifying that such piecemeal relief is in the country's national security interest. But such a course would be sure to spark a political firestorm. "There would be a lot of people in Congress who would be upset if the president waives sanctions with nothing to show for it, or what we perceive to be a bad deal," a Senate aide says. That, a House aide added, "would simply invite Congress to take [his] discretion away."
Some members of Congress have already been discussing whether to tie the president's hands by inserting new, tougher conditions for him to use the waiver—for instance, certifying that Iran has met the conditions of U.N. Security Council resolutions—amid fears that even a temporary postponement of sanctions would give Iran a lifeline just as its government is beginning to cry uncle, or make it hard to revive stricter sanctions if and when Iran cheats. Hill aides acknowledge that adding restrictions into upcoming sanctions bills or high-priority measures that Obama cannot veto might hamstring the administration, which wants to retain flexibility and to wrangle an international coalition to pressure Iran. "But that's something we have to consider," another senior House aide says, "if we feel sanctions need to be stronger."
Congress can also affect the diplomatic discussion through new sanctions, as promised by Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who complained in a Washington Post op-ed that Iran's outreach left them "underwhelmed." Tehran was incensed by sanctions the House passed in July to pressure countries to reduce their Iranian oil buys and restrict Iran's ability to access the global banking system or foreign cash reserves. Now the Senate Banking Committee is drafting a companion bill to advance in a few weeks. New measures could complicate Obama's negotiations, says Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, who argues that Congress should not "make Obama's task any more complex by binding or constraining him."
Complicating matters further, there's no consensus on the Hill about the terms of a good or bad deal. Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says he is "willing to do tit for tat" with the Iranians: sanctions' relief for substantial nuclear concessions. "They should start dismantling, then we will start dismantling." Other members appear to hold an all-or-nothing position similar to that of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who urged the West to refuse any partial deal to loosen the fiscal pressure, and delay action until Iran fully dismantles its nuclear program.
Some members of Congress may object to lifting sanctions if Iran continues violations even outside the nuclear program. "So long as Iran continues to pursue a nuclear-weapons capability, build longer-range ballistic missiles, sponsor terrorism around the world, and abuse human rights, the Senate should impose maximum economic pressure on Iran to give diplomacy a chance to succeed," says Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.
Just the fact of Congress's publicly expressed distrust of Iran could nix diplomacy by tilting the political calculus in Washington or Tehran. "Administrations have to make calculations about what they can accomplish on Capitol Hill or not," Lindsay says. "Often when presidents can't count on winning, they don't even ask." Congressional tirades on the Internet and TV can also empower Iran's hard-liners. "People who curse Mr. Rouhani and threw eggs at him and a shoe will be looking to debate here for evidence that suggests it is pointless to try to reach an understanding with the U.S."
Obama—in a classic good-cop, bad-cop tactic—might use congressional suspicion to persuade the Iranians to make greater nuclear concessions to have sanctions lifted. "The question is," Lindsay says, "could it get to a point where congressional table-pounding goes from being useful negotiating leverage for the president to impeding his ability to negotiate a deal?"