Obama’s Strategy to Win Senate support for an Iran Nuclear Deal

By Kayvon Afshari and Michael Brooks

Now that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has passed a bill to give Congress oversight over a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration would be wise to devise a strategy to turn Congressional review to its political advantage. Despite the ‘anti-Iran-deal’ money generously provided by big name donors, there are key vulnerabilities that the administration can exploit to put the pressure on both Democratic and Republican Senators who will be struggling to decide whether to vote up or down on a deal. Here’s what the political landscape looks like, what the Obama administration is already doing, and how we think they should play it in the months to come.

Solid Democrats

President Obama continues to have solid support among Democratic Senators for his project to diplomatically resolve the Iranian nuclear issue. Should the P5+1 and Iranian diplomats reach a comprehensive deal, the administration can count on support from Democrats such as Harry Reid (D-NV), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Chris Murphy (D-CT), and others. Furthermore, both Senate Independents, Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Angus King (I-ME), can be counted on to support a nuclear deal.

Wavering Democrats

Another group within the President’s party still need to be won over to support any hypothetical deal. This group wants to see its party achieve a foreign policy win, but still wants to appear tough on Iran. It includes Senators such as Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Mark Warner (D-VA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and others.

A strategy for dealing with the wavering Democrats should not only emphasize that the deal is in the best interest of US and regional security, but that it extracts significant concessions from Iran— concessions that are outside the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory. Next, to shore up party solidarity, they should frame the collapse of a deal as a failure of Democratic foreign policy writ large. Furthermore, since the waverers have not articulated a coherent alternative, they will be left in the position of embarrassing the US diplomatically and handing the President’s adversaries a victory on an essential piece of his and the party’s legacy.

Oppositional Republicans

Short of full Iranian capitulation, suspension of its entire nuclear program, and fundamental changes in Iran’s ideology and foreign policy, oppositional Republicans will not support a nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic. This group includes Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), John McCain (R-AZ), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ted Cruz (R-TX) and others.

Following the stunning overreach of the letter that 47 Senate Republicans signed and sent to Iran’s Supreme Leader in an attempt to undermine Obama’s diplomatic efforts, the administration’s strategy should be to impose a cost on oppositional Republicans. The administration should continue an aggressive strategy of articulating that undermining this deal would shorten ‘breakout time’ for Iran, breakup the international coalition that the US has built to pressure Iran, and create significant instability in a region already engulfed in crisis.

Key Republicans

Given that the Republicans control 54 out of 100 seats in the Senate, the White House needs a strategy for picking off key Republicans to support a hypothetical comprehensive nuclear deal. While most Republicans are staunchly opposed to the deal that is being carved out, key Senators such as Bob Corker (R-TN), Rand Paul (R-KY), Jeffrey Flake (R-AZ), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and Susan Collins (R-ME) may be at play.

Given Rand Paul’s professed-libertarian views and energetic presidential bid, the Obama administration can pressure him to support this deal as a way to head off another military intervention in the Middle East. This is because Senator Paul must attempt to thread the needle of proving his hawkish bona fides in a Republican presidential primary, while not alienating the more libertarian, non-interventionist supporters he inherited from his father Congressman Ron Paul. By exploiting this contradiction, the White House can put an influential Republican in a difficult position on the Iran nuclear deal.

To coax the remaining key Republican Senators, the administration needs to relentlessly argue that this deal is the path to regional and national security, whereas those who reject the deal only offer irresponsibility and more instability. This message can speak to Republicans who are receptive to a realist foreign policy. Essentially, to put pressure on them, the administration needs to articulate the message that: “I’m tough on Iran; your colleagues delusional on Iran.”


The administration is already effectively pursuing some of the steps that we have outlined. While the Senate likely cannot put a full stop the multilateral diplomatic process nor prevent sanctions removal at the European Union and United Nations, a vote of support by America’s elected representatives would go a long way to solidifying this deal. It would give the deal more domestic credibility and institutional solidity, as well as ensure the deal’s longevity after the 2016 presidential elections. A diplomatic resolution to this thorny, decade-long international issue would pay dividends that benefits all Americans, regardless of party or ideology.

Kayvon Afshari is the Director of Communications for the American Iranian Council, and Michael Brooks is a contributor on the award-winning political talk and analysis show The Majority Report.