FPI Bulletin: Will Congress Accept Détente with Iran?

November 4, 2014

The commencement of the “lame duck” session next week will present the 113th Congress with a final opportunity to debate Iran’s nuclear program.  This moment follows two years in which the White House has blocked every attempt at Congressional action on the issue, most dramatically when President Barack Obama issued a veto threat against one bipartisan proposal during his 2014 State of the Union Address.

What has the administration accomplished while icing Congress out?  The Iranian economy has received billions of dollars in sanctions relief without dismantling a single centrifuge. Tehran has refused to cooperate with United Nations nuclear inspectors, while Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has described “red lines” that mock the prospect of a negotiated agreement. Iran’s abuse of human rights and support for terrorism continue unabated. Finally, the Wall Street Journal reports that the Obama administration has reached a “détente” with Tehran in which the two countries are now cooperating, under the table, across the Middle East. 

The tension between the administration’s conciliatory approach to Iran and its efforts to deny Congress a voice in nuclear diplomacy may come to a head by November 24, the deadline for the latest round of negotiations concerning Iran’s nuclear program. Although the prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough appear slim, The New York Times has reported “President Obama will do everything in his power to avoid letting Congress vote” on one.  Both in the lame duck and early next year, Congress should make clear that it will not be steamrolled on this most important of issues.  Specifically, lawmakers should:

  • Demand a strategy for dealing with both Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its dangerous role across the Middle East. For Israel and our Arab allies, the question today is whether the United States has reached a détente with Iran, or a virtual alliance. Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote after a recent trip that our partners in the region “perceive the U.S. government as not only conceding Iranian hegemony in the region, but even promoting it as a positive good.” Congress should demand a strategy from the President that works to roll back both the Iranian nuclear program and its dangerous ambitions throughout the region. 
  • Describe the terms of an acceptable final nuclear agreement with Iran. Lawmakers can avoid being forced into an unacceptable deal by describing what minimum terms they would require to acquiesce in lifting sanctions. At a minimum, these should include verifiably cutting off Iran’s uranium and plutonium paths to a nuclear weapon, and imposing an intensive inspections and verifications regime that can provide credible assurance that Iran is neither overtly nor covertly building a nuclear weapon. A July 2014 letter by an overwhelming majority of House lawmakers indicates the broad support this approach could receive.
  • Approve sanctions-in-waiting to ensure Iran negotiates an acceptable final agreement. Although the President’s veto threat means that Congress is unlikely to act on the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act this year, Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez can still push for a vote during the lame duck or reintroduce similar legislation in the new Congress if negotiations are again extended. Such legislation would establish crippling sanctions if Tehran violated its commitments under the current interim agreement or failed to negotiate a final agreement in good faith.
  • Hold any final agreement with Tehran subject to a vote of disapproval.  In July, Republican Senators Bob Corker, Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and John McCain submitted the Iran Nuclear Negotiations Act of 2014, which would require the President to submit a final agreement to Congress for approval.  As noted by the Wall Street Journal editorial board, “the message [the bill] sends to Iran is that Congress won’t sign off on a bad agreement that puts America’s interests at risk.” This is especially important because the sanctions regime touches on many more issues than just the nuclear portfolio, such as Iran’s missile programs, abuse of human rights, and support for terror.
  • Reverse defense cuts that are harming America’s military power. Cuts to the U.S. Defense Department budget have forced the military to slash training, postpone deployments, and reduce the number of carriers stationed in the Persian Gulf. As recommended by the bipartisan, congressionally-mandated National Defense Panel, Congress should work to repeal the Budget Control Act and restore defense spending to at least the level recommended in Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ final budget proposal.  If the United States is to credibly deter Iran and other would-be aggressors, it must have the resources to defend itself and its allies.

Although it is unlikely that Congress will act on this agenda in the few weeks it has left this year, lawmakers may yet be given the opportunity to make a difference both in the lame duck session and next year.  When Congress comes back to Washington, it should ensure that the administration does not forget its own mantra: that “no deal” with Iran is better than a “bad deal.”

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More