Iran’s leaders wonder who’s really in charge in U.S. They may be surprised.

February 1, 2015
Code Pink activists protest before a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on Perspectives on the Strategic Necessity of Iran Sanctions

Code Pink activists protest before a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on Perspectives on the Strategic Necessity of Iran Sanctions, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 27, 2015. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

From the moment President Barack Obama took office, the Iranian government had its doubts about his administration. There were two schools of “doubt.” The first questioned his intentions. They believed his rhetoric and promises were just that — empty words. In deeds, the argument read, he was no different from his war-prone predecessor. 

The other school doubted Obama’s abilities, not his intentions. Could an inexperienced, outsider president really shift America’s longstanding policy and attitude towards Iran? Was he even the real decision maker?

“I do not know who makes decisions for the United States, the president, the Congress, elements behind the scenes,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in 2009. By now, however, there should be less confusion in Tehran. Obama is on a roll.

Tehran’s doubts were not unfounded. What used to be perhaps an academic question, is today a very practical and pertinent one: The sanctions relief Obama is promising Iran in the nuclear talks are not his to lift. Obama has waiver rights, but only Congress can lift sanctions. Congressional opposition to a nuclear bargain with Iran has consequentially weakened Obama’s hand in the negotiations, rather than serve as a ‘Good cop, bad cop’ Jedi mind-trick that would compel Tehran to lower its demands.

It’s simple economics: Since the risk of dealing with a president that does not control the sanctions relief process is higher, the price Iran must ask for giving concessions must increase accordingly.

But the doubters in Tehran should take note. Some extraordinary changes to the political landscape in the United States have occurred that should prompt Iran to reevaluate Obama’s abilities.

A few weeks ago, new sanctions on Iran were on the fast track in the new Republican Senate. The measure would, at a minimum, undermine the nuclear talks, at most cause their collapse. On paper, Obama was heavily outgunned. Historically, no piece of legislation passes as easily in Congress as an Iran sanctions bill. The Republican-controlled Congress has no time or patience for either Obama or his chats with Iranian nuclear negotiators, so sabotaging the talks and depriving the president of a much needed foreign policy success was a no-brainer. And mindful of Israeli pressure in favor of sanctions, many Democratic lawmakers would likely abandon the president and side with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instead, it was predicted.

But Obama stood firm. Rather than seek a compromise with the Senate, he threatened a veto and warned them about the consequences of sabotaging the talks. “The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom,” he said.

As of today, eight Democratic senators have co-sponsored the new sanctions bill. Unless sanctions supporters manage to get at least 14 Democrats to commit to the measure, they cannot override Obama’s veto and will only embarrass themselves trying.

[A staffer in Senator Mark Kirk’s (R-Ill.) office, who is not authorized to speak publicly, also points to five other Democrats who have signaled support for the bill, one way or another. But whether they would vote for the current version of the bill if it comes to a floor vote, is not known. Kirk is one of 16 senators who introduced the current version of the sanctions bill.]

Perhaps more importantly, senators who supported a similar measure last year and who have historically been very close to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s position on Iran, such as Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), have refrained from sponsoring the bill. “The president strongly believes it would gravely harm negotiations, and therefore, I am willing to give him more time before supporting this bill,” Gillibrand told CNN.

Even more shocking, perhaps, was Hillary Clinton’s full backing of Obama in this contest. In the midst of preparations for her presumed 2016 presidential run, Hillary came out against both AIPAC and Netanyahu and called the sanctions bill “a very serious strategic error.”

Undoubtedly, the issue took on an even greater partisan dimension when House Speaker John Boehner secretly invited Netanyahu to address congress on this matter, which in turn added pressure on Clinton to close ranks with Obama. But for Clinton to come out and so strongly back Obama – at a time when she has sought to distance herself from his foreign policy – cannot be explained solely by partisan solidarity.

Rather, Obama has succeeded in changing the underlying politics of the matter. The debate over Iran sanctions is no longer about Iran, but about war with Iran. Diplomacy with Iran is the best way of avoiding both a nuclear Iran, and bombing Iran. Any measure that undermines diplomacy, such as new sanctions, automatically enhances the risk of war.

Passing sanctions on Iran used to be the safest political move in Congress. But today, imposing sanctions means supporting war, which is a move that carries a tremendous political cost. So high that Hillary Clinton chose to come out against AIPAC and Netanyahu instead.

This is not to suggest that Obama has taken control over the process of lifting sanctions. That authority remains in the hands of Congress. But what the recent wrangling in Congress shows is that Obama can redefine what is politically feasible and unfeasible. Two years ago, anyone who suggested that Congress would fail to impose new sanctions on Iran would be lucky not to be committed to a mental institution. Those advocating diplomacy over sanctions were in the political margins. Today, diplomacy is the policy, while sanctions proponents are considered extremists.

Tehran should be careful not to base its negotiation calculations on yesteryear’s political realities.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of Democratic senators who are co-sponsoring the Iran sanctions bill.

15 comments

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One should ask the question,why increasing sanctions would result in war?
Why is Obama bringing war in to the conversation that is only about the
Limiting of Iran’s enrichment capability ?
Is it because of Iran’s desire for a nuclear bomb ?
If there is no agreement with Iran,dose it mean that Iran will produce
A nuclear weapon?Why would he even contemplate such a thing?
Why not take Iran at irs word that all they want is a civil nuclear peaceful program ?
Those are legitimate questions that the world know the answer to
And yet the world is willing to let Iran remain a threshold nuclear state.
What ir is is black mail,Obama is black mailing America by posing war or bomb
Being aware that Iran’s goal is the bomb ,then why make it
Easier for them,,letting Iran keep its enrichment program makes no sense
Under any cercomstanc

Posted by elle9009 | Report as abusive

What can one expect from an Iranian defending Irans nuclear program?
It’s like the cat that is looking over the milk.
Come on reuters, even you can do better .

Posted by elle9009 | Report as abusive

Many of us in the US know who is running the government – Rice, the Benghazi Liar-in-Chief – Valerie Jarrett, the Iranian-born co-president – and Al Sharpton, the race-baiter tax-cheat.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

Nice article – why doesn’t the author find a job in Tehran?

Posted by Subwavelength | Report as abusive

And many of us in the U.S. have no clue who is running the federal government, notwithstanding how much clout Rice, Jarrett, and Sharpton may have with the current administration.

Posted by Toomuchthinking | Report as abusive

Iran is now the target of Islamic State and Al Qaeda bombings abroad. This is a stroke of genius on the part of the current U.S. administration. Not because we with Iran ill will, but because they now have a reason to step up and participate in the control of jihadists. China will need to do more as well. They breed like rabbits, use much of the world’s resources, and do very housework around the world for what they take.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

I’m an American and I’ve been asking myself that same question for 30 years. Something tells me most Americans are looking for an answer as well. Something stinks in America today.

Posted by johnlocke445 | Report as abusive

While the facts stated in this piece are accurate, the conclusion about yesterday’s policies loosing relevancy (today) are misguided. Tehran has a long track record of hoodwinking the world. Many years of blocked inspections and deceit of IAEA inspectors leave much doubt as to the trustworthiness of this regime.
Remember the story of the boy who cried wolf? A parallel and more important story, might be the boy who said nothing when the wolf came.

Posted by gabe010 | Report as abusive

This may be one of the most ridiculous leaps of logic ever written, but since it comes from Trita Parsi of the NIAC it’s actually quite understandable since his organization is the lobbying face of the Iranian regime in the US and faithfully tows the line for Iran’s mullahs. It’s sadly ironic that he starts off by asking the question of who runs the U.S. Ironic because democracy is a messy, difficult, conflict and maddening process. Unfortunately for Parsi, the U.S. can’t be neat and efficient like Iran where political dissent is suppressed, the internet blocked, social media banned, reporters arrested and opponents put in prison. I’m sure he finds it unfortunate the U.S. just doesn’t round up 1,000 opponents to a nuclear deal with Iran and simply hang them as Iran has done the past year with great efficiency. It’s sad that he represents a regime that bases national policy on personal interpretations of the word of God and devotes its national infrastructure to supporting terror and wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan. But coming from him, it’s to be expected.

Posted by ChangeIranNow | Report as abusive

If only Obama acted assertively soon after winning his first term, instead of tryning bipartisan avenues, he would have had a long march on the road to world peace right from Cairo visit. And realised his mandate. One should trust the trustworthy. Trusting the Republicans was a critical mistake, amounting to trusting the tea party fanatics. Cris Christie’s book on the death of a political party has lessons for Obama. Their thinking is partisan and constantly shaped by unilateralism that has lost its relevance.
Let Obama make bold moves to reset the international relations.

Posted by urk | Report as abusive

What might Emily Post say about the level of incivility and dehumanization from blogs,posts,politicos,Domestic publicans,AIPAC,Iran, Espionage or clemency for Jonathan Pollard to Bibi Netanyahu there is no limit to the hedonism and gluttony.A gold coin to find a face within the beltway capable of a blush.It’s a crooked walkway with razor sharp edges and you should see red but nothing phases,feels like a crime yet no one reacts,It’s a mild form of terrorism and there is nothing your allies will not ask for….They cheat iran on a Billion Dollar oil Deal and goad you to launch war to cover their legal expense’s,things can be quiet when they look like Palestine…..

Posted by DJSanDiego | Report as abusive

if you think in black and white terms such as “good guys vs bad guys” you are living a delusional fantasy. Ask yourself how many wars/interventions/regime changes Iran has been involved in and how many the States were/are involved in

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Stat es_involvement_in_regime_change

not saying the Iranians are angels but US foreign policy has been incredibly belligerent

Posted by sulaiman-a | Report as abusive

Sanctions are now a declaration of war? Fear mongering anyone? Fuel up the jet for apology tour 2.0

Iran has a history of failing to follow through with its promises in regards to internal nuclear policies. Obama needs to stop worrying about his legacy and return to the land of reality. This veto threat is the political version of “I’m taking my ball and going home.”

Posted by Gumaer | Report as abusive

Obama has 2 years left, and the only thing he should be thinking about is what is best for the United States, that is it. Since Israel only looks out for its own best interest, it is now time to do the same. I can’t understand why would support Israel so much, so blindly and the American People, back this for some strange reason. Yes, they suffered a lot during World War 2, but so did a lot of others in Nazi concentration camps.

Either Israel starts listening to the United States and finally solves the Palestinian occupation or we should cut off all ties and put sanctions on. No more American money or support to they start being a good citizen of the world

Posted by Fresquezr | Report as abusive

Maybe we should arrest presidents who try to make deals with terrorists?

The government of Iran, by proxy, is a terrorist organization. We should not be negotiating with them. They MUST NOT be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon, their ability to finance the terrorist groups of the world needs to come to an end.

In short, Iran needs to be treated like any other terrorism organization, and iradicated.

Posted by JoeAmerican05 | Report as abusive