Obama Fends Off Congress but Putin Complicates Talks

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously approved a compromise bill yesterday that would allow Congress to review and vote on any nuclear agreement with Iran.  The White House has indicated that it would sign the bill.

Yet even as the Obama administration reduced a potential deal-killing threat at home, it faces a challenge in its international coalition.  On April 13, Russia announced the sale of the S-300 air defense system and an oil-for-goods swap with Iran – moves that could complicate the negotiations and the implementation of a final agreement.

The compromise on the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, brokered by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker and ranking member Ben Cardin, requires the administration to submit the final agreement for a 30-day congressional review.  The bill states that Congress does not have the authority to approve the agreement but allows Congress to pass a resolution of disapproval and halt the lifting of the congressionally-imposed sanctions on Iran.  The President would then have up to 12 days to respond to a resolution of disapproval, after which Congress would have 10 days to override a veto.  During this formal review period, the President would be prohibited from exercising his waiver authority to lift sanctions.

The legislation, which the administration feared would contain “poison pill” provisions, was watered down in the compromise.  The bill was stripped of language requiring the administration to certify that Iran is not sponsoring terrorism against Americans and does not require Tehran to recognize the state of Israel.  The administration would be required to submit regular reports on Iran’s support of terrorism and its ballistic missile program, but those reports would not trigger sanctions.

While the White House had opposed previous incarnations of the bill, the legislation, as voted out of committee, now makes it less likely that Congress will kill the nuclear deal.  Under the structure of the bill, Congress has three options regarding sanctions relief.  If Congress passes a resolution of approval, the President would regain his authority to waive sanctions immediately.  If Congress takes no action, the President would regain his waiver authority after the 30-day review period.  If Congress passes a resolution of disapproval within 30 days, the President would be prohibited from exercising his waiver authority going forward.  The President, of course, can veto any resolution of disapproval and therefore only requires the support of 34 senators to waive sanctions and implement the deal.

The legislative maneuvering in Congress elicited a dismissive reaction from Tehran.  Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, speaking today in Rasht, stated that the “current disputes” between the President and the Senate are “none of our business” and that Iran is not negotiating with the U.S. Congress but with the governments of the P5+1 nations.

Yet as the White House removed a potential obstacle to a deal on the home front, Russia has thrown up a new hurdle in the international coalition.  Russian President Vladimir Putin issued an executive order on April 13 ending a ban on the delivery of the S-300 air defense system to Iran.  Russian officials claim that this was a self-imposed ban, put in place in 2010 by then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev under diplomatic pressure from the United States and Israel.  These governments argued that the S-300 system would help shield Iran’s nuclear infrastructure from possible attack.  The S-300 is a long-range surface-to-air missile complex that is mobile and able to target aircraft and missiles.

According to an April 13 statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s ban was not required by U.N Security Council resolutions.  He described the S-300 system as defensive and therefore not covered by U.N. restrictions.  Yet Resolution 1929 of June 2010 prohibits countries from supplying Iran with “battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems,” as defined by the U.N. Register of Conventional Arms.  The resolution also calls upon countries to “exercise vigilance and restraint over the supply, sale, transfer, provision, manufacture and use of all other arms and related materiel.”

U.S. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf indicated on April 13 that the United States does not consider the sale of the S-300 a violation of U.N. sanctions.   Nonetheless, Harf said that Secretary of State John Kerry raised concerns over the sale in a conversation with Foreign Minister Lavrov.  The announcement of the arms sale, and the oil-for-goods swap, at such a sensitive moment in the nuclear negotiations signals potential cracks in the P5+1 coalition.  The S-300 deal potentially gives Iran greater leverage in the negotiations.  And the eagerness of Russia to do business with Iran signals that the phased implementation of sanctions relief may be difficult to implement in practice.