How Congress Could Block a Nuclear Deal With Iran

There are a number of ways lawmakers could throw a wrench into a potential agreement.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif shake hands as Omani Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs Yussef bin Alawi and former E.U. top diplomat Catherine Ashton look on in Muscat, Oman, on November 9, 2014.
National Journal
Nov. 18, 2014, 9:20 a.m.

The dead­line for a nuc­le­ar deal with Ir­an is next Monday, and con­gres­sion­al op­pon­ents of an agree­ment are con­sid­er­ing their op­tions for pre­vent­ing one from be­ing struck. Con­gress has a wide range of tools it can use to get in the way of a deal with Ir­an—and Pres­id­ent Obama has a few tricks he can use to counter.

A deal with Ir­an faces stiff op­pos­i­tion from mem­bers of both parties, who are wary of an agree­ment that would provide Ir­an with sub­stan­tial sanc­tions re­lief without re­quir­ing it to dis­mantle its nuc­le­ar pro­gram. Sen. Mark Kirk, a Re­pub­lic­an from Illinois, and Sen. Robert Men­en­dez, a Demo­crat from New Jer­sey, are spear­head­ing the cham­ber’s op­pos­i­tion to a deal. In a joint state­ment last week, they said they would chal­lenge any agree­ment that did not re­quire Ir­an to com­pletely take apart its nuc­le­ar pro­gram. “We will work with our col­leagues in Con­gress to act de­cis­ively, as we have in the past,” the state­ment read.

The most ob­vi­ous av­en­ue avail­able to Con­gress for block­ing a deal is le­gis­lat­ive ac­tion. Be­cause the deal rides on sanc­tions re­lief, Con­gress can de­prive the Amer­ic­an ne­go­ti­at­ing team of its strongest bar­gain­ing chip by either im­pos­ing new sanc­tions on Ir­an or mak­ing it very dif­fi­cult for the U.S. to keep any prom­ise to roll back ex­ist­ing sanc­tions.

But any new sanc­tions le­gis­la­tion Con­gress passes would be, of course, sub­ject to a pres­id­en­tial veto. Obama threatened to veto a bi­par­tis­an bill to im­pose new sanc­tions on Ir­an last Decem­ber, and giv­en that a deal with Ir­an is quickly be­com­ing a leg­acy is­sue, he’s likely to do what he can now to keep it alive.

To keep the pres­id­ent out of the pic­ture, Con­gress could pass a non­bind­ing ex­pres­sion of con­gres­sion­al will, says Rudy deLe­on, former deputy sec­ret­ary of de­fense and a seni­or fel­low at the Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress. A non­bind­ing res­ol­u­tion would make a point without cre­at­ing an en­force­able law that would re­quire the pres­id­ent’s sig­na­ture.

Ne­go­ti­ations are so fra­gile, and each side’s dis­trust of the oth­er so deep, that a sym­bol­ic ges­ture could be just as ef­fect­ive as leg­al ac­tion. “It doesn’t do any good as a leg­al mat­ter for Con­gress to tell the pres­id­ent, ‘Don’t ne­go­ti­ate this agree­ment,’ ” says Dan Mar­cus, a fel­low in law and gov­ern­ment at Amer­ic­an Uni­versity. “But as a prac­tic­al mat­ter, it could have an ef­fect.” If Ir­an is wor­ried that Con­gress will un­der­cut a deal once it’s made, or that a fu­ture pres­id­ent will back out, an agree­ment could fall apart be­fore it’s even im­ple­men­ted.

The ex­ist­ing eco­nom­ic sanc­tions on Ir­an come in two main forms. A good chunk of the sanc­tions re­gime was im­ple­men­ted by ex­ec­ut­ive or­der, which makes it easy for the pres­id­ent to strip away whatever pun­it­ive meas­ures he sees fit to end. But a num­ber of the harshest sanc­tions on Ir­an were writ­ten in­to law by Con­gress and would re­quire a con­gres­sion­al vote to re­peal.

The pres­id­ent can in­ter­vene to provide tem­por­ary re­lief, but he would even­tu­ally have to in­volve law­makers. “Con­gress, when it en­acts sanc­tions, usu­ally gives the ex­ec­ut­ive branch some au­thor­it­ies for waiv­ing them,” says deLe­on. “Re­mem­ber: It was the ad­min­is­tra­tion that asked for the sanc­tions in the first place. But at the one-year mark, to take some of these ele­ments off will re­quire that there be le­gis­la­tion.”

An­oth­er ap­proach that’s been floated to block a deal is to deny fund­ing for ne­ces­sary ele­ments of the agree­ment. Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C., has threatened to do just that if the White House tries to make a deal without in­volving Con­gress. But Mar­cus says that ap­pro­pri­ations, usu­ally one of the most ef­fect­ive weapons Con­gress wields, doesn’t have so much clout here. “This is not something that re­quires a lot of money,” he says.

Even as it puts up op­pos­i­tion to a deal, Con­gress has its own im­age to worry about. “Con­gress doesn’t want to be viewed as hav­ing sab­ot­aged a deal,” says deLe­on. In­stead, it may want to wait un­til it’s sure that a po­ten­tial deal is un­ac­cept­able, even if the al­tern­at­ive is a re­turn to the status quo, Mar­cus says. “Five years from now, when the Ir­a­ni­ans are sit­ting there with their nuc­le­ar weapons and threat­en­ing their neigh­bors, the people who said ‘let’s wreck this deal’ won’t look so good.”

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