The Iran Deal: Politicians Fighting the Last War

Military historians have a saying: Generals usually fight the last war. The same could be said for politicians.

The agreement negotiated by the U.S., Germany, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China with Iran to curtail Tehran’s nuclear ambitions was completed and submitted to Congress on July 19, only a few weeks before the August congressional recess.

Members of Congress of both parties feared or welcomed a repeat of the 2009 August recess when President Obama’s health care reform bill encountered rough waters. Town hall after town hall erupted in bitter complaints over a proposal that might disrupt the health care plans of millions of Americans. Health care is an issue that affects all Americans, rich and poor, urban or rural, black or white, evangelical or agnostic.

Surprise: The heated town halls witnessed across the country six years ago were not seen this summer. Sure, vigorous, even angry, opponents to the agreement showed up. Old and new organizations organized against the agreement and raised millions of dollars for attack ads. But that opposition was largely concentrated among conservative American Jews and Republicans.

Groups that could have turned the tide such as independents and moderates had more pressing concerns – like economic insecurity, joblessness, climate change, the gyrating stock market and gay marriage.

As The New York Times noted on August 29, “This August recess has not produced the kind of fiery town hall-style meetings that greeted lawmakers in 2009 before their vote on the Affordable Care Act, but in one small but influential segment of the electorate, Jewish voters, it has been brutal.”

There are a number of other key factors in the triumph of the Iran agreement. Most Republicans politicians vociferously opposed the agreement almost before the ink was dry. There was no pretense of reading the agreement and consulting experts. They were virtually 100% opposed. It was an agreement negotiated by a Democratic president they have opposed at nearly every turn.

Thus Democrats contemplating opposing the agreement were forced into a potentially uncomfortable embrace – whether fair or not – with rabid Republicans opponents, symbolically represented by very vocal opposition in the last week before the votes by Dick Cheney, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Sarah Palin. Roll Call blogger Steven Dennis pointed out: “Opponents’ harsh rhetoric and apocalyptic ads . . .backfired when it came to securing the Democratic votes they needed for a veto override.

With a sharp partisan divide, Democrats found it easier to stick with the predominant Democratic position endorsed by a Democratic president and the presumptive Democratic nominee for president in 2016. But many agonized. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, one of a number of moderate Democrats who ultimately backed the agreement, reported that he had participated in 40 briefings, meetings, and discussions about the Iran accord since April.

Surprisingly, the crucial legislative moment did not come in September when both the House and Senate voted on the agreement, but in May 2015 with a deal on a bill put forward by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Corker of Tennessee and acting ranking Democrat on that committee Ben Cardin of Maryland. Had Congress required a two-thirds Senate treaty vote, or a majority in both houses for an executive agreement, the deal would have gone down. Instead, overwhelming congressional majorities accepted an unusual procedure where only one-third plus one of either the Senate (34 Senators) or the House (146 Representatives) was required to sustain a presidential veto against any bill to reject the agreement. That made the legislative hurdle to the agreement relatively easy to surmount.

Another important factor was an unusually engaged president and administration working hard for the agreement. According to a September 8, 2015 Washington Post article, Obama spoke or met with more than 120 members of Congress, making 30 phone calls during his August vacation. Cabinet officials briefed more than 220 officeholders. The administration even created an “Anti-War Room” in the basement of the West Wing to serve as a headquarters for whipping votes and providing rapid responses to opposition claims.

The unexpected star of the lobbying effort was Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, who quickly earned the trust of senators and representatives and cleared his schedule to defend the agreement before Congress.

Although most nuclear nonproliferation experts have said this is a very good agreement, the strongest argument in favor of it was the absence of good alternatives, notwithstanding opposition pleas to return to the negotiating table. In briefings before Congress, the United States’ European negotiating partners made clear that if Congress rejected the deal, there would be no return to the bargaining table. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) emphasized that point: “If members really believed there was a better deal waiting in the wings, they would have voted no.”

The internal congressional effort was led by Democratic whip Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Rep. Jan Shakowsky of Illinois. all are professionals who know how to count votes and work their colleagues diligently, but were careful not to push their colleagues too hard. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) praised Durbin’s work: “He facilitated members going through their own process and didn’t big-foot anybody.”

The pro-diplomacy NGO community amplified the efforts by the administration and congressional champions of the agreement. Spearheaded in large part by Ploughshares Fund, a coalition that included Council for a Livable World and other advocacy organizations, think tanks, grassroots, netroots, media, and messaging groups worked together for the past two years and put together a vigorous and active drive through the August recess into September. The groups organized statements signed by nuclear experts, former government officials, retired ambassadors and military officials, ex-Israeli national security officials, religious leaders and former Members of Congress. The coalition lobbied members of Congress, organized actions in congressional districts and states and coordinated responses to often erroneous claims from the opposition. While outspent by anti-agreement forces, pro-diplomacy advocates had sufficient funding for television and newspaper ads and coalition work and helped to create the space for Democrats to examine the deal without one-sided pressure.

There is much work to be accomplished to ensure the Iran agreement is properly implemented, and it will be years before the agreement with Iran will be judged as a success. But there is no doubt that President Obama has secured another victory during his supposed lame duck last two years in office. It’s a landmark, legacy win.