FPI Bulletin: Will Congress Have a Vote on Iran?

April 13, 2015

Tomorrow, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to debate the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (S. 615), which would give Congress the chance to vote on any final deal with Iran. The bipartisan legislation, authored by Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), empowers Congress to disapprove of any agreement that fails to meet the objective President Obama articulated at the outset of negotiations: preventing Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
The president has threatened to veto the bill, arguing that it would exacerbate prospects for reaching an agreement. In fact, the bill would present only an obstacle to an agreement that permits Iran to become a threshold nuclear state.
In the past, the Obama administration argued that a good deal would require Iran to dismantle a substantial part of its nuclear program. However, the framework announced on April 2 would allow the regime to retain the entirety of its infrastructure and would expire after 10 to 15 years, aspiring only to delay Iran’s acquisition of the bomb.
In an interview with NPR last week, President Obama himself acknowledged this reality. “In year 13, 14, 15,” he said, “[the Iranians may] have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.”
In effect, then, lawmakers seek a vote not to torpedo negotiations, but to exercise oversight and determine whether a deal meets the standards the Obama administration previously articulated — and that once commanded overwhelming bipartisan support.
President Obama’s effort to exclude Congress also disregards the role that lawmakers played in enabling the talks to occur in the first place. As the Obama administration has repeatedly noted, congressionally authorized sanctions helped bring Tehran to the negotiating table. Now, the administration intends to ask Congress to lift those sanctions as part of a final agreement, yet would deny lawmakers the opportunity to vote on the agreement itself.
Secretary of State John Kerry has defended this approach by arguing that the deal is not a “legally binding plan,” and therefore does not require congressional approval. However, President Obama’s plan to seek a U.N. Security Council vote on a final agreement, hence enshrining the deal as legally binding under international law, suggests otherwise.
In a recent letter, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough explained the administration’s thinking. “Because the principal negotiators of an agreement with Iran are the five permanent members of the Security Council,” he wrote, “we anticipate that the Security Council would pass a resolution to register its support for any deal and increase its international legitimacy.”
McDonough is mistaken: The principal negotiator of an agreement is, and has been, the United States, the leader of the international sanctions campaign and Tehran’s central interlocutor in the talks. Yet by prioritizing a deal’s international legitimacy rather than its legitimacy in the United States, the White House effectively subordinates America’s national security interests to the interests of adversaries such as Russia, which today lifted a ban on providing Tehran with the advanced S-300 air defense system.
In order to advance a good deal, the administration would instead persuade Congress about the wisdom of its strategy. Any agreement that fails to gain congressional buy-in is unlikely to retain the support of the American people or of future American leaders.
In this context, the prospect of congressional action should also send a critical message to Iran itself: the American people, speaking through their elected representatives in Congress, demand meaningful concessions before they sign off on a deal. Given the uncertainties that pervade the framework, the administration clearly needs this additional leverage.
On April 2, President Obama told the nation that the framework agreement he had just reached would “prevent” Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The prospect of a congressional vote offers him the opportunity to substantiate this claim.

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