The Democrats' crushing defeat in the Nov. 4 midterm elections has paved the way for a more hawkish US role in the Middle East, starting with the Iran nuclear talks.
Republicans have gained control of the Senate and strengthened their lock on the House in what amounts to a referendum on President Barack Obama's policies, including his failure to foresee and forestall the rise of the Islamic State (IS). The unexpectedly lopsided victory creates intense political pressure on Obama to shift course, not only on Iran but also with regard to Syria/Iraq, Israel, Egypt and other Middle East issues.
One of the first priorities for the new Republican Senate will be deciding the role it wants to play in overseeing — and possibly derailing — the negotiations with Iran, which are still expected to produce some kind of deal or at least an agreement to keep talking by the Nov. 24 deadline. The Democrat-controlled Senate managed to stave off a vote on bipartisan sanctions legislation this year following an intense lobbying campaign by the administration, but the new Republican leadership will most likely demand a say.
One top contender for a vote is a bill by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Banking Committee Mark Kirk, R-Ill., that would slap new sanctions on Iran if it fails to abide by its previous agreements. It has garnered 60 co-sponsors — including 17 Democrats (several of whom lost re-election) and all but two Republicans. Rank-and-file members will demand a vote when Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., replaces Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in January.
"I expect that the Senate will be Republican-controlled after the next election," Kirk told Al-Monitor back in September. "And the first thing up should be Menendez-Kirk."
Following Tuesday's elections, Republicans will control at least 52 seats and possibly as many as 54 (elections in Virginia, Alaska and Louisiana have still not been called). If the bill is reintroduced again next year and past supporters sign back up, it could attract 67 co-sponsors — enough to break a veto by Obama. In the House, where Republicans gained at least 13 seats on Tuesday, similar legislation passed 400-20 last year.
Another bill that could come up for a vote is legislation from Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations panel, that would put lawmakers on the record supporting or opposing any deal reached between the White House and the Iranian leadership. While nonbinding, a "joint resolution of disapproval" would make it that much more difficult politically for the Obama administration to unilaterally relax sanctions on Iran, a requirement for Iran to make any concessions on its end.
Beyond legislative action, Republicans are also expected to turn the heat up on Iran talks through their oversight powers. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who is in line to take over the House Intelligence panel, told The Daily Beast Nov. 5 that he wants to investigate back-channel talks going back several years between Iran and the United States.
"There is going to be real scrutiny from the House and Senate in what’s taken place on the entire Obama administration’s tenure dealing with the Iranians,” Nunes reportedly said.
While the Republican Congress holds strong cards on Iran through its ability to potentially derail a deal, it can also play an important role on several other fronts, including:
Obama will come under intense pressure to take a more forceful role in combating not only IS but also Syrian President Bashar al-Assad when his longtime critic John McCain, R-Ariz., takes over the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain has long called on the United States to arm vetted Syrian rebels and wants to reverse cuts to the national defense budget.
"Republican control of the Senate = expanded neocon wars in Syria and Iraq. Boots on the ground are coming!" tweeted former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a libertarian critic of US intervention abroad.
Obama quickly acknowledged the need to get lawmakers' buy-in for his IS strategy following Tuesday's rout by calling on Congress to give him new war-making authority in a post-election speech.
"I'm going to begin engaging Congress over a new Authorization to Use Military Force against [IS]," Obama said Wednesday. "The world needs to know we are united behind this effort, and the men and women of our military deserve our clear and unified support."
Tuesday's elections are widely seen as good news for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose poor relations with Obama reached their nadir last month with the publication of a US article quoting an unnamed administration official calling him a "chickenshit." The Republican victory is seen as tying the administration's hands to some extent in its ability to strike a nuclear deal with Iran that doesn't have Israel's blessing, while creating momentum for efforts to cut aid to the Palestinians as well as the UN agency that handles Palestinian refugees.
Finally, the Republican victory could mean good news for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. One of his top congressional critics, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., will lose his gavel as chairman of the Appropriations panel that oversees foreign aid in January, potentially opening the door to legislative changes that would allow the Obama administration to release $650 million worth of military hardware that's currently blocked by Congress.
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