Focusing specifically on one foreign policy issue of Mr. Obama’s, he is likely to find it harder to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran by November 24th -- the deadline set by the “P5+1” and Iran -- due to Republican skepticism of Iran’s intentions. This is a good thing.
To be sure, a resolution to Iran’s nuclear program is in everyone’s best interests. Iran is adamant that it will never give up its program, even with debilitating sanctions in place and threats of military action by the United States and Israel. Iranians are in favor of their country’s program; if the country gave it up, the government would be seen as buckling under pressure from the West, something that Iran has actively resisted since the 1979 revolution.
So the program isn’t going anywhere and neither is the fear by the West and Israel that Iran is really after nuclear weapons. A nuclear-armed Iran, even if it didn’t seek to make good on threats to “wipe Israel off the map,” would spark a regional arms race. Saudi Arabia, it seems, would be quick to acquire weapons from Pakistan and given the amount of sectarian violence raging across the Levant and the Gulf recently, fear of a Saudi-Iran war would be heightened.
Because of the severe consequences of Iran getting a nuclear weapon, it is therefore important for the “P5+1” to tread cautiously in its nuclear dealings. President Hassan Rouhani is a pleasant alternative to his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but his election last year does not mean a complete redirection of Iranian policy. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is still in charge of the show and as hardline as ever.
The reason why it is a good thing that Mr. Obama will face renewed pressure from Congress over the deal is that it lessens the chance that a bad deal will get passed. Certainly, one can hope that the “P5+1” will devise a “mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution" that would ensure Iran's nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful but, in pursuit of such, the West may be tempted to take a bad deal for the sake of some form of progress. Doing so is risky, not just for the threat that a nuclear-armed Iran poses to the region but for the fact that it further isolates regional allies of the United States. Plenty of discrepancies still exist (the Supreme Leader, though largely taking a hands-off approach, over the summer said Iran needed far more centrifuges than is being discussed by negotiators).
It is therefore important for Mr. Obama to ensure that the right deal is made. Considering the damage wrought by sanctions -- the Congressional Research Service estimates that Iran’s oil production has more than halved after the new restrictions -- the “P5+1” is negotiating from a position of strength.
Mr. Rouhani has staked his presidency from its outset on bringing relief to Iranians from sanctions, so even if no deal is reached now one can be found later. For Iran to become the stronger power that it perceives itself as, the country needs to be integrated into the world economy, not isolated through sanctions.
There are 18 days left until November 24th, the anniversary of last year’s interim agreement and the date set for the expiration of the current talks aimed at achieving a solution. The United States, along with its partners on this issue, should continue to press Iran for a solution that will not just be deemed acceptable today, but in decades from now as well. The advantage is with the “P5+1” now, but the moment sanctions are removed it will prove far harder to put them back on, especially given rising animosity between the West and Russia over Ukraine. Sanctions are leverage -- it was a smart move to trade some for concessions over the program in the interim agreement, but real progress needs to be made for the whole batch of sanctions to be taken away.
The political party not in the White House is often called obstructionist by the other when it blocks plans by the president. In this case, if Republicans do block a deal, it may not be a bad thing if the solution crafted is more beneficial to Iran. The presence of a Republican-held Congress may even convince Iranian negotiators that they (rather than the “P5+1”) need to make a greater effort to reconcile discrepancies. For Iran, it now has to worry about the fact that Mr. Obama, who to his credit has thus far been receptive to a deal, is going to be a lot more cautious on what the United States agrees to. The waiting game doesn’t work for Iran, because sanctions will continue to bite and in two years, Mr. Obama will be out of office, perhaps in favor of a president less amenable to the idea of negotiating with Iran.
The upper hand rests with the United States after the midterm elections (whether or not Mr. Obama wants to admit that is another story) and so Mr. Obama should take advantage of it, for he now has the opportunity to press Iran harder. For all Iran’s defiance over the program, it needs a solution the most. The “P5+1” can therefore afford to be picky.