It did not take long for opponents to an Iranian nuclear deal to muck with the negotiations. The next two-and-a-half months will be rocky for Washington and Tehran as they try to reach a June 30 deadline, but the forces that could prevent an eventual deal are still fairly limited.
U.S. President Barack Obama begrudgingly acquiesced late Tuesday night to giving Congress a say on the cornerstone of his foreign policy legacy. According to the amended bill, should Iran and the six world powers reach an agreement by the June 30 deadline, Congress will have 30 days to review the deal. If Congress rejects the deal, the president can be expected to veto their decision and lawmakers could then try to scrounge up enough votes to overturn the veto — an unlikely prospect. If the deadline is missed, then the U.S. administration would have to give Congress a 60-day review period but would still have the option of vetoing a rejection of the deal. And if the president feels that negotiators are not going to make the June 30 deadline, he can still buy time by extending the 2013 Joint Plan of Action interim agreement with Iran if he gives Congress 45 days' notice.
The U.S. administration likely briefed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani before announcing the compromise with Congress, but he obviously is not amused by Washington politics. As he put it, Iran is negotiating with the six world powers — the United States, Russia, China, Germany, France and the United Kingdom — not the U.S. Congress, and any deal with Iran would have to entail an end to sanctions. Naturally, Iran will try to drive a hard bargain in this critical phase of the talks to get as much sanctions relief up front that it can. But Iran's negotiating team has always known that the U.S. administration would have little choice but to rely on executive waiver authority in providing relief since the bulk of the sanctions have been codified into law, requiring the improbable cooperation of a rebellious Congress in campaign season to lift them.
There is more to the picture than what can be seen in public statements. During the review period, the U.S. president can still move ahead in lifting U.N. sanctions on Iran and executive orders that are independent of Congress. Lifting U.N. sanctions will then allow the European Union (as well as Japan and South Korea) to lift their own sanctions on Iran while the U.S. administration waits for Obama's debate with Congress to play out. This is a messy process, but it is also the only option available to Iran. This maneuvering in Washington will not come as a surprise to Tehran, but it will require some rhetorical acrobatics to make the Iranian public understand what sanctions relief will look like.
Russia has been subtler in its efforts to complicate the negotiation, but not necessarily effective. For the past three days, Russia has issued statement after statement convincing the world that Moscow is finally ready to sell S-300 air defense systems to Iran. A few years ago, when the U.S. military was looking seriously at military contingencies for Iran, Washington's attention would snap to the S-300 threat. But as the U.S. administration pursues a normalization of ties with Iran, a Russian S-300 sale to Iran — though irksome — is not a deal breaker.
Israel, however, is a different story. Israeli news site NRG, citing unnamed officials, leaked that Israel could allow advanced arms sales to Ukraine and Georgia. This reminds us of August 2008, when on the eve of Russia's invasion of Georgia, Israel threatened to sell unmanned aircraft to Tbilisi, evoking Moscow's outrage. After intense negotiations between Israel and Russia in which Israel secured guarantees from Russia on withholding S-300s from Syria and Iran, Israel quickly backed off its threat. Now, with Russia ratcheting up the S-300 threat again while Israel's American patrons are negotiating with Iran, Israel can once again threaten to meddle in the Russian periphery.
Even Moscow might eventually appreciate the irony of this situation. Russia's primary concern is that a United States liberated from its commitments in the Middle East will be all the more energized and focused on encircling Russia from the Baltics to the Caucasus. A U.S. threat to arm Ukraine with lethal weapons falls into this category. Russia is likely trying to raise the S-300 threat with Iran now in the hopes of deterring Washington from arming Kiev. Instead, it has provoked Israel into sending the same message: A step too far will lead to trouble in one's own backyard.