The Slatest

Can Congress Stop Obama’s Iran Deal?

Playing a role: Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Corker, right, and Robert Menendez attend a hearing about the ongoing Iran talks on July 29, 2014, in Washington, D.C. 

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In an interview with the New York Times’ Tom Friedman, President Obama makes a not-all-that-convincing claim that he wants Congress to play a role in implementing the nuclear deal with Iran—just so long as that role doesn’t involve preventing him from doing anything he wants to do.

“I do think that [Tennessee Republican] Sen. Corker, the head of the Foreign Relations Committee, is somebody who is sincerely concerned about this issue and is a good and decent man, and my hope is that we can find something that allows Congress to express itself but does not encroach on traditional presidential prerogatives—and ensures that, if in fact we get a good deal, that we can go ahead and implement it,” Obama said.

But critics in Congress—mostly Republicans, but also a few Democrats—who are not happy about the deal, and really not happy about the White House conducting foreign policy without their oversight, don’t seem convinced. Corker is co-sponsor of legislation that would submit the deal to mandatory congressional review and prevent the lifting of sanctions during the review period. He told Fox News Sunday that he is moving ahead with his legislation and expects a vote on April 14. A separate bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran is probably on hold until the final agreement, which is due to be concluded on June 30, but it still looms over the process. Both the White House and the Iranian government have warned that new sanctions could scuttle the deal.

It’s still quite possible that the agreement could fall apart between now and the end of June. For one thing, there’s still significant daylight between the Iranian and Western positions on issues including the pace of sanctions relief and how, exactly, Iran plans to reduce its enriched uranium stockpile. Of course, all of this is moot if there’s credible evidence that Iran is cheating on the agreement, but if it cooperates, as it has with the interim agreement from 2013, Congress’s ability to mess with the deal is pretty limited.  

The White House can’t actually lift the nuclear-related sanctions on Iran without Congress, but the president has considerable authority to waive them or suspend them. A report by Larry Hanauer of the RAND Corp. lays out Congress’s options for responding to the deal, ranging from passing legislation to facilitate it by relaxing sanctions (don’t hold your breath) to passing legislation that would impose new sanctions or limit the president’s ability to suspend. Congress could also prohibit the executive branch from using federal funds to implement the agreement or even pass an authorization for the use of military force against Iran should the country not comply with the terms of the agreement. The last option is unlikely—Congress doesn’t seem to be in the mood to grant the administration new war powers these days, even powers it hasn’t actually asked for. And it’s not clear that opponents of the deal have the votes to overturn a presidential veto on the other options.

Even Corker’s comparatively mild bill—it would block the lifting of sanctions for only 60 days and require another joint resolution to make the block permanent—is still short of the votes it needs for a veto-proof majority. Even skeptical Democrats who might favor congressional oversight would probably be more wary of actually blowing up the president’s negotiated agreement.

As the RAND report argues, “Political gridlock makes it highly likely that Congress will be unable to take any legislative action at all.” This would mean that for now, the White House could selectively lift sanctions through executive action.

On Dec. 31, 2016, three weeks before Obama leaves office, the Iran Sanctions Act will expire unless Congress takes action to renew it, as it has three times since it was first passed in 2006.

The U.S. is indefinitely maintaining a number of non-nuclear sanctions on Iran, so the preference on all sides would be to amend the act rather than let it die completely, but there’s likely to be deep disagreement over what the new sanctions regime should look like, so set your clocks for one last Iran showdown as Team Obama heads out the door.

The bigger question looming over the future of the agreement is who will occupy the White House starting in 2017. A number of Republican candidates have come out against the negotiations, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has pledged to undo the deal on “day one” if he is elected. But as the Washington Post’s Dan Drezner notes, “path dependence is a powerful force in foreign policy.” The U.S. public doesn’t approve of the Obama administration’s handling of Iran, according to polls, but somewhat contradictorily wants a deal, even one that allows some enrichment to continue. Obama’s “bad deal” with Iran may be an applause line for Republicans this week, but if it seems to be working two years from now, it may be much harder to undo politically.

More crucially, as the shift in Republican rhetoric I noted last week indicates, given the speed at which events are developing in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere, Iran’s nuclear program no longer seems like the centrally defining regional issue it once was. Iran seems to be building its influence just fine without a nuclear program. By the time Republicans actually have a chance to influence this deal, it may seem like old news.