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A “Free” Vote on Iran

The anti-Iran hawks will get to vote against the nuclear deal, without sinking it.

August 10, 2015

The anti-Iran hawks will get to vote against the nuclear deal, without sinking it.

There is a lot of heated discussion on the pages of the main U.S. newspapers about the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, negotiated as part of the P5+1 talks.

The politically relevant question is the upcoming vote in the U.S. Senate, which most media reporting implies will determine whether the deal will take effect.

The opponents of the Iran deal are turning it into a “life or death” matter. Republicans are congenitally opposed – simply because it is a deal negotiated by Barack Obama.

Only one Republican Senator – Jeff Flake of Arizona – is even considered in play to support the deal. In addition, all the “friends” of Israel have turned it into a litmus test of standing by Israel or not.

With the Republican majority opposing it and now a key Senate Democrat (and possible future minority leader), Chuck Schumer of New York, announcing that he will oppose the deal, one would think that the prospects for passage are doomed.

And yet, unless things change very dramatically, it would be a wrong conclusion to assume that the deal is in serious trouble.

The fail-safe

The reason why is that the vote in the U.S. Congress has been carefully structured in such a manner that it does not require an actual majority for the deal to take effect. Rather, the deck is stacked the other way around.

To nix the deal, the Senate must ultimately be able to vote through a resolution against it by a veto-proof majority. And that would require 67 out of the 100 US senators coming out to vote against it (along with 290 U.S. House members).

What we have here is thus the ideal concept of “voting” in the U.S. Congress. It is, in essence, what one may consider a “free” vote.

Members of the Senate and House who have some qualms about the deal, whether for constituent reasons or not, can vote no — without such a no vote having any dramatic consequences on the diplomatic front. As long as fewer than two-thirds of members vote against the deal, it will not cause a crisis.

This is especially good for Democrats like Mr. Schumer. They can tell their constituents and potent donors that they really cared about their concerns and thus voted no – without the nation paying any real price for it.

In a way, having such votes in the end means that one can effectively be on both sides of the fence – the ideal disposition for any politician.

Choosing peace

As a general principle, of course, this is probably not a strategy to be recommended. The people’s representatives should, after all, be taking meaningful votes on most international agreements.

But for a particularly delicate multilateral negotiation involving war and peace, it is an ideal setup to stack the deck against the former and in favor of the latter.

Remarkably, even the United States Constitution did not set a two-thirds threshold for Congress in making declarations of war – a feature seemingly rendered moot since World War II. A mere majority in each chamber could plunge the country into war.

It has been far too easy for the United States to choose the path of war casually. The structure of the Congressional role on the Iran Deal fortunately makes it much harder in this one instance – while still letting the “bomb bomb bomb” caucus formally register its hawkish preferences.

It might not look it to the rest of the world, but by U.S. political standards in 2015, that’s a win-win.


Unless things change dramatically, it would be wrong to assume the Iran deal is in trouble.

Stopping the Iran deal would require 67 Senators & 290 House members. Many can vote no without harm.

Members of Congress who wish to vote against the deal can do so without jeopardizing US diplomacy.