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A Constructive Role for Congress on Iran

Congress can bolster the U.S. negotiating position and help prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon by playing the role of enforcer for an agreement.

Congress can bolster the U.S. negotiating position and help prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon by playing the role of enforcer for an agreement. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Congress can bolster the U.S. negotiating position and help prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon by playing the role of enforcer for an agreement. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

This column contains an update.

The United States and its negotiating partners—known collectively as the P5+1—are just days away from a potential agreement to halt Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon. This is a critical moment that could peacefully resolve one of the most vexing national security threats the United States has faced over the past two decades. On such a critically important national security issue, the president must lead. Congress should also continue to play a role, but it must be a constructive one.

Iran came to the negotiating table because President Barack Obama and Congress worked together to impose some of the most restrictive and effective economic sanctions the world has ever seen, such as the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010. President Obama simultaneously assembled an international coalition—including Russia, China, and some of Iran’s biggest customers, such as India and Japan—to stand united against Iran’s nuclear program, multiplying the power of sanctions and isolating Iran diplomatically.

Getting from the negotiating table to a lasting agreement will require an equal demonstration of executive-legislative cooperation.

Unfortunately, some members of Congress have sought to undermine this kind of cooperation through cynical, destructive ploys such as the open letter to Iran’s hard-line leaders signed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and 46 other Republican senators and the bill sponsored by Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) that would revoke the president’s congressionally mandated waiver authority over sanctions. Sen. Corker’s bill would subject any agreement reached by the seven negotiating parties to a congressional vote.

These senators may think they are playing good cop, bad cop with the president, but they are acting more like vigilantes in the negotiating process, making it harder for U.S. negotiators to extract concessions from Iran, which can now argue that only greater and more immediate sanction relief can make a deal workable in the face of these congressional threats. This type of demand from Iranian negotiators, strengthened by congressional missteps, is a nonstarter for the United States and would be exactly the sort of bad deal these same senators claim they were seeking to avoid.

Not all the supporters of Sen. Corker’s bill have bad intentions. Many of them, such as Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), appear to be genuinely fueled by a belief that the legislative branch has a crucial oversight role to play in such critical matters of national security. This view is consistent with Sen. Kaine’s advocacy for legislation to authorize the U.S. military mission against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, another area in which Congress should play a constructive role. Ironically, many of the same Republicans arguing for a more intrusive congressional role in the Iran negotiations simultaneously criticize President Obama’s proposed authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF, against ISIS as too restrictive on the prerogatives of the president.

But members seeking a role for Congress must not be blind to the ulterior motives of some of their conservative colleagues. As Sen. Cotton said at a Heritage Action forum in January, undermining the negotiations are “a feature, not a bug” of congressional action, suggesting that he and his colleagues have no desire for a negotiated settlement.

Although almost no one is willing to admit it outside the Senate cloakroom, a strategy to stop Iran from producing a nuclear weapon without negotiation will ultimately end in war. If it involves ground forces, such a war would make the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan look like cakewalks. Alternatively, an air war against Iran and its nuclear facilities would likely only set Iran back two or three years in its quest for a nuclear weapon. However, it would certainly strengthen the regime’s power and harden its determination to go nuclear, only this time without the visibility currently provided by regular inspections from the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA.

Instead of undermining years of high-stakes negotiation, Congress should instead rally behind legislation that strengthens the U.S. negotiating position in the final days before the March 31 deadline. Moreover, Congress should make clear that the country stands united in the effort to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon.

The Obama administration may be able to negotiate a deal on its own, but to make sure Iran never gets a nuclear weapon, it needs Congress’ help. It is inappropriate and unhelpful for the legislative branch to inject itself into the negotiations process, a role that must be led by the executive branch. But Congress can play a constructive role with respect to Iran by enforcing a deal and making sure that Tehran holds up its end of an agreement.

To that end, Congress should first establish a more effective mechanism that not only suspends sanctions on Iran, but also enables them to quickly snap back into place if Iran fails to comply with the deal—for example, if Tehran restricts access for international weapons inspectors. A good model for an expedited snap-back mechanism can be found in the Iran Congressional Oversight Act introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) earlier this month, which outlines a quick timeline for calling Congress back into session, introducing legislation, and proceeding straight to a vote, waiving all points of order against the motion.

Second, Congress should establish a rigorous monitoring mechanism to ensure Iranian compliance with a P5+1 agreement modeled on the Helsinki Commission, which was established in 1976 to monitor implementation of the Helsinki Final Act, another multilateral executive agreement with a geopolitical rival posing a nuclear threat—the Soviet Union. Such a commission should include a bipartisan group of members of Congress from both the House and Senate; officials from the departments of energy and state and other relevant agencies; and professional staff made up of nonproliferation experts and scientists.* Instead of relying on administration officials to brief Congress on whether or not Iran is abiding by the terms of a nuclear agreement, the commission would look at the facts and make that judgment.

The constructive role Congress should play is that of enforcer. In that capacity, Congress can make clear to Tehran that the United States stands together and that Iran will suffer far beyond any sanctions imposed to date if it fails to live up to the terms of any nuclear deal reached.

Iran will not reduce its centrifuges, transfer its nuclear stockpile, or submit to intrusive inspections unless it feels this kind of sword of Damocles hanging over its head. But it will not feel any such pressure as long as half of Congress views the president, not Iran, as the enemy. It does not have to be this way. A more constructive role on Iran is available to Congress but only if it seizes the opportunity.

Ken Sofer is the Associate Director for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress.

*Update, April 3, 2015: This column has been updated to provide a citation for additional context on the monitoring proposal based on the Helsinki Commission.

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Ken Sofer

Senior Policy Adviser

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