No New Economic Sanctions Against Iran Until Negotiations Are Finished, Democratic Senator Announces

President Obama had a bad news day today, from plummeting approval ratings to a pointless hubbub about a selfie he took at Nelson Mandela’s memorial. However, he also received some very good news on the foreign policy front: A key Democratic Senator says he won’t push for new sanctions against Iran until the latest round of negotiations with the country are complete. That’s a big victory for Obama, as it allows Secretary of State John Kerry to pursue diplomacy with Iran without having to worry about a new round of sanctions souring the deal.

The two countries reached an interim agreement weeks ago, and are planning to continue negotiating for the next six months. Senator Tim Johnson had previously flirted with pushing new sanctions against Iran before the end of the year, but on Tuesday, he announced that Obama and Kerry had made “a strong case” that withholding sanctions is the best course of action for now. Normally, it isn’t big news when a Democratic Senator agrees with the president, but in this case, it’s crucial.

The Republican-controlled House would be happy to pass new sanctions against Iran. So would most Senate Republicans, but they don’t control the chamber. The path to new sanctions, therefore, runs through Senate Democrats, and so obtaining the tacit support of conservative Democrats like Johnson is vital if Obama sincerely wants a deal.

In some ways, Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani are in similar positions. Both appear genuinely eager to strike a deal with one another (Obama would love to stop worrying about Iran developing a nuclear weapon, while Rouhani would love to stop worrying about his country’s economy falling apart). Perhaps more significantly, both face a lot of political pressure to oppose a deal.

Anti-Americanism is standard operating procedure in Iranian politics. Earlier this year, Rouhani was forced to nix the possibility of a simple handshake with Obama at the United Nations summit, as the hardliners in his country wouldn’t have it. Similarly, American politicians are almost uniformly anti-Iran, with the primary differences between the parties being to what degree (Democrats want to crush Iran with sanctions; Republicans want to crush it with sanctions and then bomb it).

If Johnson had pushed for more economic sanctions while negotiations were taking place, it could put the kibosh on a new deal, even if the sanctions didn’t pass Congress, as it conservative Iranian politicians would likely react by increasing the pressure on Rouhani to pull out.

To be sure, there are other potential obstacles to protracted negotiations with Iran — namely, Senators Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez, two other Democrats who’ve expressed interest in passing new sanctions before negotiations take place. Still, this one less hurdle Obama and Rouhani have to worry about in their goal to somehow, in some way, reach a deal with one another.