Late last November, when the U.S., its P5+1 partners, and Iran agreed to curbs on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief, Congress responded with draft legislation imposing new sanctions. This threatened to spoil the first break in the decade-old nuclear dispute with Iran and return the parties to the path of confrontation. It was only after significant White House outreach on Capitol Hill that the bill was defeated and negotiations allowed to proceed.
With a few weeks to go before the November 24 deadline in the nuclear talks, President Barack Obama is once again facing an invented crisis that threatens to derail negotiations. This time, though, it’s not about protecting the talks. It’s about securing a final nuclear deal with Iran.
Recent reports indicated the unremarkable fact that the White House intended to exercise its prerogatives and do without an up-or-down vote in Congress on a nuclear deal. The news came as no surprise to members of Congress, who had been briefed that an Iran nuclear deal would not be dealt with as a “treaty” and would thus not require a Senate vote.
Nonetheless, congressional hawks scoured to the scene, jumping at the chance to fabricate a crisis anew. On Wednesday, Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida sent a letter to President Obama claiming Congress will not allow him to unravel the sanctions architecture that members have so dedicatedly put in place. Should the president proceed to act unilaterally, the letter warns, Congress will undo whatever sanctions waivers the president issues and will expand existing sanctions on Iran.
If Ros-Lehtinen’s grievance sounds reasonable, it’s not. Being the lead sponsor of the Iran Threat Reduction Act — a major piece of sanctions legislation — Ros-Lehtinen is responsible for giving the president the power to suspend sanctions. It was her pen that blessed the White House with a power she now decries.
Buyer’s remorse is not a credible excuse, either. On successive occasions, Congress made sure the president was well-equipped to suspend sanctions should a nuclear deal ever emerge from negotiations. Significantly, Congress has never passed a single piece of sanctions legislation on Iran that did not grant the President the power to suspend it.
The reason is clear: Suspending but not lifting the sanctions gives the White House the time to test Iran’s compliance with the terms of a nuclear deal and to instill confidence in Iran’s intentions before repeal. Should Iran fail to adhere to its nuclear-related obligations, the president can quickly reassert sanctions pressure and force Iran into compliance. This is not just the policy; this is the right policy.
Yet, Congressional hawks care little about the policy. What they care about is foiling a nuclear deal. Thinly-disguised, their intentions should by now be crystal-clear. To do that, moreover, they have no problem undermining the U.S.’s negotiating hand.
The U.S. is at its strongest in negotiations when the president can confidently assert the full support of Congress and at its weakest when members of Congress publicly threaten to sabotage the president’s efforts. As the retired U.S. diplomat R. Nicholas Burns has aptly noted, “We can only have one president negotiating with Iran, not 535 presidents negotiating.” Right now, the U.S. is being left unable to speak with one voice at the table with Iran, and U.S. credibility is the victim.
This has other consequences, too. While some members are signaling that President Obama might not be able to fulfill whatever pledges he makes at the negotiating table, Iran is left shouldering the risk. And we can be sure that Iran will discount such risk from the nuclear compromises it would otherwise be willing to make. If there’s an equation to this, it is a simple one: The more threats congressional hawks make, the less likely Iran will agree to robust limits to its nuclear program. This is not the first time that hardliners on Capitol Hill will work to the benefit of hardliners in Tehran. Nor will it be the last.
President Obama and his team have worked hard to resolve a major foreign policy crisis and reach a peaceful solution with Iran. Some members of Congress, on the other hand, have sought to manufacture crises and push the U.S. towards a war it has neither the will nor the means to fight. The two sides will clash soon enough.
Tyler Cullis is a legal fellow and policy associate at the National Iranian American Council.