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Putin Boosts Congress's Case for Role in Iran Deal

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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Demands from Congress that it should get to review President Barack Obama's nuclear deal with Iran have received a boost from an unlikely source: Vladimir Putin.

On Tuesday, just 24 hours after Russia's president said he was going to send S-300 air-defense missiles to Iran, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker announced he had strong bipartisan support for a bill giving Congress that sort of oversight role on a deal -- if, indeed, a final pact based on the framework reached in Switzerland this month is ever reached. 

Corker has accommodated some Democratic concerns by shrinking the window under which Congress would review a deal and removing language that would require the president to certify Iran was no longer supporting terrorist groups. But it still gives Congress the strong oversight role Corker sought.

The White House had previously warned that Corker's bill would set a dangerous precedent by weakening the president's ability to conduct foreign policy, and that it could wreck the negotiations to resolve the standoff over Iran's nuclear program.  On Tuesday, however, administration spokesman Josh Earnest indicated the president would sign it if passed, as long as no objectionable amendments were added.

In short: Putin inadvertently made a strong case for the Corker bill when he effectively went back on Russia's word not to sell Iran the powerful air defense system, and now the White House has backed down from its veto threat. 

That's not the only ripple effect of Putin's decision. Senator Robert Menendez, Corker's co-sponsor of the review legislation, told us Tuesday that the announcement of the S-300 sale raised questions about what that final Iran deal will actually contain. He said it "creates a pressing issue about the verification and enforcement mechanisms because if Iran is strengthened in its defense capability against a possible need for a military action at some future date you are undermined."

Menendez, a Democrat who wrote a bill containing new Iran sanctions that was stymied when the White House warned that it would scuttle the negotiations, didn't stop there. He also indirectly challenged the line from the White House that there was unity among the six global powers negotiating with Iran, a group that includes China and Russia. "When we keep hearing the Russians and the Chinese are with us on these issues, if they really are of the same mindset as we were, they wouldn't be giving the Iranians the S-300," he told us.

Menendez earlier this month gave up his seat as ranking member of the committee, after the Justice Department indicted him on corruption charges. (He has vowed to fight the allegations.) Even from his weakened position, Menendez has put his finger on a thorny problem for the White House as it tries to sell the Iran deal. Can Congress trust Obama to get the kind of deal that would keep Iran from using its nuclear infrastructure to build a weapon? Already, Obama suffered a blow when Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said last week he wouldn't accept any final deal unless sanctions were lifted at the beginning. This contradicted the White House fact sheet on the deal, which said the sanctions would be phased out over time, giving the international community leverage if Iran cheats or defies U.N. inspectors.

But the Putin problem cuts to a deeper dilemma for the White House. To understand, it's worth remembering Obama's Iran diplomacy in his first term. Back in 2010, the Obama team worked closely with Russia to pass a U.N. Security Council resolution to impose an arms embargo on Iran and tighten international sanctions on the regime as it expanded its nuclear program in violation of international law. 

It seemed like a major coup by the White House, yet the final resolution, U.N. Security Council 1929, contained a loophole in the fine print. The clause technically allowed Russia to sell Iran the S-300 air-defense system, which it had threatened to deliver only a year before. It turns out, the Obama administration accepted the loophole in exchange for a promise from Putin's understudy Dmitri Medvedev, then the Russian president and now prime minister, that it would not ship the system to Tehran. "Putin has now reversed the earlier decision by Medvedev to ban export of S-300 to Iran under UNSCR 1929," Gary Samore, who was the White House coordinator on arms control in 2010, told us Monday. 

Michael McFaul, who was a senior White House adviser on Russia when the 2010 sanctions were negotiated and later became ambassador to Moscow, also told us Medvedev had given his word not to sell the S-300 system to Iran. "Medvedev was not obligated under UNSCR 1929 to ban this sale," he said. "But did so unilaterally to support the sanctions process. At the time, I saw it as a major breakthrough. We had no reason to believe that it was a temporary decision." McFaul added: "What changed?  Putin. He now sees the United States as an enemy. He frames issues with us in zero-sum terms."

At the time of the deal, the White House policy was aimed at bolstering the Medvedev's legitimacy in the hope that he would be easier for the West to work with than Putin. In this sense, it's similar to Obama's current Iran policy aimed at bolstering the legitimacy of President Hassan Rouhani, even though Rouhani doesn't have the final say over whether Iran accepts a diplomatic resolution of the nuclear conflict.  As with Putin in Russia, Khamenei has all real authority.

Looking backward, trusting Medvedev's word and allowing the loophole in the resolution seems like a naive gamble. Can members of Congress now trust the same president to make sound judgments in the final negotiations with Iran?

Corker is very skeptical. Appearing Tuesday on MSNBC, he said the S-300 sale was yet another "reason for us to be involved in the way that we are" with his review bill. He raised another important issue as well: "Look, we've got a group, P5+1, Russia and China are components of that that don't necessarily have the same goals, nor the same relationships with Iran"   

John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was more blunt. "It's sort of an in-your-face action by Vladimir Putin who continues to show not only his disrespect, but sometimes contempt" for the U.S., he told us. He added that he was concerned what the S-300 deal may mean if the final stage of the nuclear talks falls apart. "Obviously, then it makes it easier for the Iranians to defend themselves, so therefore complicates any actions the Israelis may have to take or we may have to take" involving military action, McCain told us.

Senator Mark Kirk, the Republican co-sponsor of Menendez's sanctions legislation, told us Putin's announcement amounted to "stabbing us in the back." He said he wanted Obama to "recycle the reset button," referring to the president's first-term policy to ignore Russia's past aggression and work on issues of common concern, such as Iran's nuclear program.

On Monday, Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said in a statement that the sale was justified in part because Iran had consented to the framework agreement on April 2. “We believe that the need for this kind of embargo, indeed a separate, voluntary Russian embargo, has completely disappeared," Lavrov said. The problem, however, is that framework agreement, as Iran's supreme leader made clear, is not much of an agreement at all on key components of a proposed deal.

Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told us that Lavrov's argument raised the threat that Russia's decision to lift its own ban on the S-300 might lead other countries to take unilateral steps undermining sanctions as well. For example, China has billions of dollars worth of Iranian oil revenue frozen in its banks as a result of sanctions which it now could decide to free up based on the framework deal. 

"The fact that the Russians feel they can implement such a deal tells you everything you need to know about the extent to which the Russians, Chinese and others don't fear U.S. sanctions enforcement," Dubowitz said. "It would surprise no one if the Chinese tomorrow released billions of dollars in escrowed oil revenue from Iran."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the authors on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net