How Congress Could Wreck an Iran Deal

The fate of U.S. sanctions against Iran may have less to do with what President Obama negotiates than what Hill denizens want.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif (R) attend a meeting of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany about Iran's nuclear program September 26, 2013 on the sidelines of the General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York. 
AFP/Getty Images
Sara Sorcher
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Sara Sorcher
Oct. 3, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

 

It may be hard to be­lieve after con­gres­sion­al in­fight­ing shut down the gov­ern­ment this week, but Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats do agree on something: Ir­an should not be trus­ted. New Ir­a­ni­an Pres­id­ent Has­san Rouh­ani’s re­cent charm of­fens­ive prom­ising polit­ic­al lat­it­ude in nuc­le­ar ne­go­ti­ations has fallen flat on Cap­it­ol Hill, as did the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s op­tim­ism that sanc­tions against Ir­an could be lif­ted, even with­in months, if the parties reach a “good deal” with fail-safe meas­ures en­sur­ing that Tehran’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram is peace­ful.

Pres­id­ent Obama may not like it, but Con­gress holds the power over sanc­tions, his main bar­gain­ing chip. The fin­an­cial noose around Ir­an is man­dated by Con­gress, and it can only be lif­ted by Con­gress — and there’s no guar­an­tee law­makers will agree with whatever the White House con­siders an ac­cept­able deal.

“The pres­id­ent ac­tu­ally will be con­duct­ing two sets of ne­go­ti­ations: one with the Ir­a­ni­ans, the oth­er with mem­bers of Con­gress,” says James Lind­say of the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions. “He’s go­ing to have to con­vince the Ir­a­ni­ans to give up sig­ni­fic­ant parts of their nuc­le­ar pro­gram, and then turn around and per­suade mem­bers of Con­gress the Ir­a­ni­an con­ces­sions are enough and they’re veri­fi­able. Oth­er­wise, he gets noth­ing.”

Even though U.S. in­tel­li­gence sug­gests that Ir­an has not yet de­cided to build a nuc­le­ar weapon, many mem­bers of Con­gress be­lieve, as Is­rael does, that Tehran is scram­bling to ac­quire one. Mem­bers have proved de­term­ined, unit­ing across party lines, at times to buck ob­jec­tions by the ad­min­is­tra­tion and im­pose wide-ran­ging sanc­tions. They’ve writ­ten in­to law that most of the sanc­tions, some in place since the 1990s, can­not be lif­ted un­til the pres­id­ent cer­ti­fies (by provid­ing evid­ence to a skep­tic­al Con­gress) that Ir­an no longer spon­sors ter­ror­ism and has dis­mantled its nuc­le­ar, bio­lo­gic­al, and chem­ic­al weapons, as well as its bal­list­ic mis­siles and launch tech­no­logy.

Dur­ing ne­go­ti­ations, such as­sur­ances would be vir­tu­ally im­possible to get, and Con­gress is un­likely to change the law to ac­com­mod­ate either Obama or the mul­lahs. So the pres­id­ent has the leg­al op­tion to tem­por­ar­ily waive sanc­tions, usu­ally for a peri­od of four months at a time, by cer­ti­fy­ing that such piece­meal re­lief is in the coun­try’s na­tion­al se­cur­ity in­terest. But such a course would be sure to spark a polit­ic­al firestorm. “There would be a lot of people in Con­gress who would be up­set if the pres­id­ent waives sanc­tions with noth­ing to show for it, or what we per­ceive to be a bad deal,” a Sen­ate aide says. That, a House aide ad­ded, “would simply in­vite Con­gress to take [his] dis­cre­tion away.”

Some mem­bers of Con­gress have already been dis­cuss­ing wheth­er to tie the pres­id­ent’s hands by in­sert­ing new, tough­er con­di­tions for him to use the waiver — for in­stance, cer­ti­fy­ing that Ir­an has met the con­di­tions of U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil res­ol­u­tions — amid fears that even a tem­por­ary post­pone­ment of sanc­tions would give Ir­an a life­line just as its gov­ern­ment is be­gin­ning to cry uncle, or make it hard to re­vive stricter sanc­tions if and when Ir­an cheats. Hill aides ac­know­ledge that adding re­stric­tions in­to up­com­ing sanc­tions bills or high-pri­or­ity meas­ures that Obama can­not veto might ham­string the ad­min­is­tra­tion, which wants to re­tain flex­ib­il­ity and to wrangle an in­ter­na­tion­al co­ali­tion to pres­sure Ir­an. “But that’s something we have to con­sider,” an­oth­er seni­or House aide says, “if we feel sanc­tions need to be stronger.”

Con­gress can also af­fect the dip­lo­mat­ic dis­cus­sion through new sanc­tions, as prom­ised by Sens. Robert Men­en­dez, D-N.J., and Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C., who com­plained in a Wash­ing­ton Post op-ed that Ir­an’s out­reach left them “un­der­whelmed.” Tehran was in­censed by sanc­tions the House passed in Ju­ly to pres­sure coun­tries to re­duce their Ir­a­ni­an oil buys and re­strict Ir­an’s abil­ity to ac­cess the glob­al bank­ing sys­tem or for­eign cash re­serves. Now the Sen­ate Bank­ing Com­mit­tee is draft­ing a com­pan­ion bill to ad­vance in a few weeks. New meas­ures could com­plic­ate Obama’s ne­go­ti­ations, says Aaron Dav­id Miller, a schol­ar at the Woo­drow Wilson Cen­ter, who ar­gues that Con­gress should not “make Obama’s task any more com­plex by bind­ing or con­strain­ing him.”

Com­plic­at­ing mat­ters fur­ther, there’s no con­sensus on the Hill about the terms of a good or bad deal. Rep. Eli­ot En­gel of New York, the top Demo­crat on the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, says he is “will­ing to do tit for tat” with the Ir­a­ni­ans: sanc­tions’ re­lief for sub­stan­tial nuc­le­ar con­ces­sions. “They should start dis­mant­ling, then we will start dis­mant­ling.” Oth­er mem­bers ap­pear to hold an all-or-noth­ing po­s­i­tion sim­il­ar to that of Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu, who urged the West to re­fuse any par­tial deal to loosen the fisc­al pres­sure, and delay ac­tion un­til Ir­an fully dis­mantles its nuc­le­ar pro­gram.

Some mem­bers of Con­gress may ob­ject to lift­ing sanc­tions if Ir­an con­tin­ues vi­ol­a­tions even out­side the nuc­le­ar pro­gram. “So long as Ir­an con­tin­ues to pur­sue a nuc­le­ar-weapons cap­ab­il­ity, build longer-range bal­list­ic mis­siles, spon­sor ter­ror­ism around the world, and ab­use hu­man rights, the Sen­ate should im­pose max­im­um eco­nom­ic pres­sure on Ir­an to give dip­lomacy a chance to suc­ceed,” says Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.

Just the fact of Con­gress’s pub­licly ex­pressed dis­trust of Ir­an could nix dip­lomacy by tilt­ing the polit­ic­al cal­cu­lus in Wash­ing­ton or Tehran. “Ad­min­is­tra­tions have to make cal­cu­la­tions about what they can ac­com­plish on Cap­it­ol Hill or not,” Lind­say says. “Of­ten when pres­id­ents can’t count on win­ning, they don’t even ask.” Con­gres­sion­al tirades on the In­ter­net and TV can also em­power Ir­an’s hard-liners. “People who curse Mr. Rouh­ani and threw eggs at him and a shoe will be look­ing to de­bate here for evid­ence that sug­gests it is point­less to try to reach an un­der­stand­ing with the U.S.”

Obama — in a clas­sic good-cop, bad-cop tac­tic — might use con­gres­sion­al sus­pi­cion to per­suade the Ir­a­ni­ans to make great­er nuc­le­ar con­ces­sions to have sanc­tions lif­ted. “The ques­tion is,” Lind­say says, “could it get to a point where con­gres­sion­al table-pound­ing goes from be­ing use­ful ne­go­ti­at­ing lever­age for the pres­id­ent to im­ped­ing his abil­ity to ne­go­ti­ate a deal?”

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