Spoiler Alert: Congress Will Squelch Any Deal With Iran

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton, and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in a trilateral meeting in Vienna in October. Carolyn Kaster/Pool/Files/Reuters

Any Iran deal is DOA on Capitol Hill.

Republicans and Democrats don't agree on much these days, but when it comes to supporting Israel and its insistence on a complete end to Iran's nuclear capacity, they might as well be sitting on the same side of the aisle. Over the past few years, numerous bills punishing Iran for its suspected nuclear weapons program have breezed through the House and Senate with overwhelming bipartisan majorities, and the prospects for further Iran sanctions in the new Congress are good.

The political muscle of Israel's advocates will be on full display when the interim deal last year that froze Iran's nuclear program in exchange for modest sanctions relief expires on November 24. That is also the deadline for Iran, the United States and five major powers to reach a final agreement that would lift sanctions in return for measures that would prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Both sides are pushing to meet that deadline, although quibbles over things like the number of centrifuges Iran will be allowed to maintain could require an extension.

But no matter what deal emerges, pro-Israel lawmakers in the new, Republican-led Congress are preparing to crush it. Israel and its supporters on Capitol Hill don't want Iran to have any centrifuges for decades to come, and they don't want any more deadline extensions either—positions the Obama administration deem unrealistic. Faced with such a bold challenge to his foreign policy agenda, President Barack Obama no doubt would veto any such legislation. But lawmakers are likely to try to override his veto. And with the Republican gains from the midterms, there's a decent chance they could muster the two-third majorities needed in both chambers to do it.

"This going to be a knife fight," Jeffrey Lewis, a non-proliferation expert at Stanford University and the Monterey Institute of International Studies, told Newsweek.

Republican determination to deny Obama a major foreign policy victory explains only part of the opposition. A significant number of Senate Democrats with strong pro-Israel credentials share GOP concerns that Obama will make a bad deal with Tehran, one that will leave Iran with the capacity to become a nuclear power—what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has termed an existential threat.

"We believe that a good deal will dismantle, not just stall, Iran's illicit nuclear program and prevent Iran from ever becoming a threshold nuclear weapons state," Sen. Mark S. Kirk, R-Illinois, and Senator Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in statement on November 12. They also warned pointedly that if the final deal doesn't include "stringent limits on nuclear-related research, development and procurement," Tehran's "coming clean on all possible military dimensions" of its nuclear program, and "a robust inspection and verification regime for decades…we will work with our colleagues in Congress to act decisively, as we have in the past."

Menendez and Kirk are behind some of the toughest Iran sanctions Congress has passed. Earlier this year, they authored a bill that automatically would have placed additional sanctions on Iran if no agreement were reached by the November 24 deadline or if a final deal didn't completely dismantle Iran's ability to enrich uranium or produce plutonium, both of which can be used in a nuclear weapon. Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, prevented the measure from coming to the Senate floor for a vote, echoing Obama's argument that it would strengthen Tehran's hard-liners and shut down the negotiations. But with the Republicans taking control of the Senate in January, new majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is unlikely to show such restraint. And with American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the largest pro-Israel lobby, pushing lawmakers to support it, the bill has an excellent chance of passage.

Analysts say that even an agreement to extend the deadline for the nuclear talks is likely to provoke lawmakers to slap additional sanctions on Iran—a move likely to torpedo further talks. "The opportunity to batter the president and raise money against the president will be irresistible," said Lewis. "Whatever deal they come home with is going to get attacked, whether it's a good deal or a bad deal. The political rewards of an attack are just irresistible."

Michael Krepon, an expert on nuclear proliferation at the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank, says Israel's demand for an entirely de-nuclearized Iran is cost-free posturing aimed at getting the toughest deal it can. The same goes for tough stands taken by its allies on Capitol Hill, he says. "But if an agreement is reached that substantially reduces Iranian capacity to build weapons and substantially increases the time line for them to do so, then these same postures by the government of Israel and by congressional skeptics can become extremely damaging," Krepon told Newsweek. "Every U.S. administration has to take Israel's concerns to heart, but no U.S. administration can hand over U.S. foreign and national security policy to the government of Israel."

Such an action, he said, would increase the prospect of a war between the United States and Iran, an accelerated drive by Tehran to produce a bomb, and hedging strategies by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other rivals of Iran that could include their own efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon.

"The posturing that's going on can come back to hurt everybody—Israel, the U.S.—and the ability of the permanent members of the Security Council to constrain Iranian nuclear capability," he said. "Posturing isn't cost-free if it continues after a deal is reached that makes good national security sense. So I would say, let's see if a deal can be struck and what the particulars are before we rush to judgment. But that's a fairy tale, because these people will rush to judgment."

While Israel's supporters on Capitol Hill fear Obama will give away too much, there are those in the arms control community who fear the president might strike a bad deal. They point to oversights during past nuclear negotiations that have shaken their confidence in the administration to come away with the best possible deal with Iran. Lewis cites a February 2012 "Leap Year" agreement with North Korea as an example of the administration's ineptitude when it comes to negotiating nuclear accords. Pyongyang agreed to freeze its nuclear activities and missile activities in exchange for food aid and a resumption of the so-called Six Party talks. The U.S. version of the agreement stipulated no North Korean missile launches of any kind, including space launches, but the North Korean text simply said no missile launches. U.S. officials dismissed the difference as meaningless. But only a few months later, North Korea fired off a rocket they said was a space launch, and "the Obama administration looked foolish," Lewis wrote.

Lewis also argues that Obama's nuclear negotiators almost made a serious mistake with the soon-to-expire interim accord. Under the initial terms, the Iranians committed not to bring online their heavy water reactor at Arak during the interim agreement. They could, however, continue to install equipment at Arak and manufacture fuel for the reactor, bringing it to the brink of operation during negotiations. American negotiators appeared to overlook the fact that such reactors produce plutonium, which offers a second path to a nuclear weapon.

Fortunately, the French stepped in, insisting that any suspension of Iran's nuclear programs had to include a halt to all activities at the Arak reactor.

"Americans have a moral streak that doesn't serve us well in negotiations. Fortunately, the French have no such impairment," Lewis wrote in a cautionary piece last November for Foreign Policy. "Let's not forget that this is a negotiation: [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani is going to try to get the best deal he can. We need to do the same."