The crowing this week over Barack Obama’s success in gaining congressional support for his Iranian nuclear deal against Binyamin Netanyahu’s defeat was premature. The July 14 Vienna deal between Iran and six world powers was just the first round of the game. Decisive rounds are still to come, before either of the two can be said to have won or lost.
The biggest outstanding hurdle in the path of the accord is Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his silence on where he stands on the deal whether by a yea or a nay.
Without his nod, nothing goes forward in the revolutionary republic. So the nuclear accord is not yet home and dry either in Tehran or even in Washington.
While Obama gathered congressional support in Washington for the accord to pass, Khamenei made three quiet yet deadly remarks:
1. “Sanctions against Tehran must be lifted completely rather than suspended. If the framework of sanctions is to be maintained, then why did we negotiate?”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest answered him: “Iran will only see sanctions relief if it complies with the nuclear deal.”
There lies the rub. For the Obama administration, it is clear that Iran must first comply with the accord before sanctions are eased, whereas Tehran deems the accord moot until sanctions are lifted – regardless of its approval by the US Congress.
Here is the first stalemate, and not the last. DEBKAfile’s Iranian sources foresee long, exhausting rounds ahead that could drag on longer even than the protracted negotiations, which Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif brought to a close in Vienna.
2. Khamenei next took the step of referring the accord to the Majlis (parliament) for approval, pretending that to be legally in force, the accord requires a majority vote by the parliament in Tehran. He put it this way, “I believe… that it is not in the interest of the majlis to be sidelined.”
This step was in fact designed to sideline President Hassan Rouhani, on whom Obama and Kerry counted to get the nuclear deal through, and snatch from him the authority for signing it – or even determining which body had this competence.
It had been the intention of Rouhani and Zarif to put the accord before the 12-member Council of Guardians for their formal endorsement. But Khamenei pulled this rug out from under their feet and kept the decision out of the hands of the accord’s proponents.
3. His next step was to declare with a straight face: “I have no recommendation for the majlis on how to examine it. It is up to the representatives of the nation to decide whether to reject or ratify it.”
This step in the nuclear chess game was meant to show American democracy up in a poor light compared to that of the Revolutionary Republic (sic). While Obama worked hard to bring his influence to bear on Congress he, Khamenei, refrained from leaning on the lawmakers, who were freed to vote fair and square on the deal’s merits.
This of course is a charade. Our Iranian sources point out that the ayatollah exercises dictatorial control over the majlis through his minion, Speaker Ali Larijani. He has absolute trust in the lawmakers never reaching any decision on the nuclear deal, or anything else, without his say-so.
Congressional approval in Washington of the nuclear accord may give President Obama a fine boost but will be an empty gesture for winning endorsement in Tehran. It might even be counter-productive if American lawmakers carry out their intention of hedging the nuclear deal round with stipulations binding Iran to full compliance with the commitments it undertook in Vienna, or also continue to live with existing sanctions or even face new ones.
Netanyahu and the Israeli lobby AIPAC, far from experiencing defeat in their campaign to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, are well fired up for the next round: the fight for sanctions.