The Realist Prism: Will Congress Handcuff Obama on Iran, TPP Talks?

The Realist Prism: Will Congress Handcuff Obama on Iran, TPP Talks?

For many in Washington, last month’s two-week shutdown of the federal government is already ancient history, replaced by a focus on the travails of the Obamacare website and feverish speculation about Hillary Clinton’s prospects as a presidential candidate in 2016. But the aftershocks of the shutdown continue to reverberate around the world. In particular, there is concern that President Barack Obama will have difficulty getting Congress, particularly a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, to vote in favor of giving his administration the flexibility it will need to conduct delicate negotiations, both with foes as well as with friends.

The continuing negotiations between Iran and the six world powers in Geneva are designed to create an enduring foundation for a settlement that would guarantee Iran’s nuclear activities would not lead to the development of nuclear weapons. The current round of talks is supposed to set this process into motion by getting Iran to put “a brake on its nuclear program in return for an easing of economic sanctions.” It may be that more meetings will be needed to narrow the distance between Iran’s desire to retain more of its capabilities and the West’s insistence that Iran undertake serious rollbacks of its current program, including on the crucial question of continued uranium enrichment. But the preliminary agreement as outlined in the press offers partial sanctions relief in return for Iran dismantling some aspects of its program, though falling short of immediate compliance with all U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding a complete cessation to enrichment activities. With both sides thus showing their goodwill, the process would be expected to continue.

Obama, however, lacks statutory authority to use executive powers to unilaterally suspend or lift congressionally mandated sanctions on Iran beyond a series of limited waivers. Even these powers are up for debate; Republican Sen. Bob Corker has proposed new legislation that would strip these exemptions unless Iran unconditionally and immediately complies with the demand to dismantle its program. In addition, as the talks with Iran continue, some in Congress are proposing yet another set of sanctions be imposed against the Islamic Republic to close remaining loopholes; Democratic Sen. Robert Casey has argued that simply because Iran has negotiators in Geneva is “no reason to let the pressure up.”

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