FPI Bulletin: Will Congress Genuinely Debate What an Iran Nuclear Deal Should Look Like?

May 22, 2014

As the United States and other world powers continue nuclear talks with Iran, they are seeking to negotiate a far-reaching grand bargain by July 20th that would curb, if not eliminate, the rogue regime’s nuclear weapons-making capability.  If the Obama administration strikes a long-term nuclear deal with Iran, it almost certainly will press U.S. lawmakers to significantly roll back hard-won sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program.  While leading voices on Capitol Hill have repeatedly called for a genuine discussion of what a final agreement should require Iran to concede, the Obama administration and its congressional allies, so far, have successfully prevented such a debate.

Witness the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s meeting on Tuesday, in which Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) dropped pro-Israel legislation from the meeting’s agenda after Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) filed an Iran-related amendment.  Menendez prevented consideration of the Corker amendment amid strong pressure from the Obama administration, which had told reporters that it opposed the amendment.

The Corker amendment would have required President Obama to submit a final Iran nuclear deal for formal congressional review—thus preventing a repeat of the White House’s controversial decision in January 2014 to hide from the public and media the text of the implementing agreement for the interim Iran nuclear deal.  It also would have created an opportunity for lawmakers to publicly support or oppose a final Iran nuclear deal, albeit in a non-binding vote.  In a recent interview with The Daily Beast, Senator Corker explained the motivation behind his amendment:  “Let’s face it, Congress has been totally iced out on this issue since its inception.”

Earlier this year, the Obama administration also prevented a genuine debate in the Senate over what the parameters of a final Iran nuclear deal should be.  After the United States and other world powers unveiled the interim Iran nuclear deal in November 2013, Senator Menendez and Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) led dozens of lawmakers in a bipartisan push for Senate consideration of the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act of 2013 (S. 1881).  The legislation, which Menendez described as a “diplomatic insurance policy against Iran,” sought to clarify the consequences that Iran would face if it were to violate the interim nuclear deal or negotiate for a final deal in bad faith.  It also would articulate congressional expectations on what a final nuclear deal should accomplish, while also creating incentives for Iran to agree to a deal that irreversibly blocks its path to a nuclear weapon via uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing.           

Rather than negotiate with U.S. lawmakers to find a cooperative way forward, the Obama administration single-mindedly opposed the Menendez-Kirk legislation, with the White House even characterizing supporters of the bill as warmongers.  Most notably, Bernadette Meehan, spokeswoman for President Obama’s National Security Council, said in a controversial statement in January 2014:  “If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be up front with the American public and say so.”

While the White House has successfully stemmed robust debate in Capitol Hill on how best to halt Iran’s nuclear threat, senior officials in the Obama administration have conceded that congressional action would be required to roll back sanctions under a final agreement with Tehran.  During a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Chairman Menendez asked Secretary of State John Kerry whether he would “come back to the Congress” to lift sanctions under a final deal.  In response, Kerry stated:  “We would be obligated to under the law, Mr. Chairman.  We would absolutely have to.  And so clearly, what we do will have to pass muster with Congress.”

Secretary Kerry’s statement on-the-record is important.  Yet, unless U.S. lawmakers do more now to signal the contours of a final Iran nuclear deal that could “pass muster with Congress,” they could very well find themselves later cornered into choosing between supporting an agreement that falls far short of their expectations, or trying to block the deal amid extraordinary political pressure from the White House and its supporters. 

Leaders in the Legislative Branch appear ready to avoid that bitter outcome by holding a genuine debate on Capitol Hill now over the future of Iran’s nuclear program, and engaging in dialogue with the Executive Branch on how best to achieve that future.  But while the Obama administration has shown itself eager to negotiate with Iran, it appears unwilling to negotiate with Congress anytime soon.

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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.
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