Congress Can’t Stop the Iran Agreement

kerry

One of my favorite classes to teach is American Foreign Policy, since there are always current event issues present that provide examples of the concepts and ideas of the course.   Last spring the US Congress voted itself the power to potentially disapprove the deal with Iran.   I used that as a way to talk about institutional power within the US government and with global institutions.  Everything played out pretty much as I predicted.

The class had a number of liberals, many of whom were angry at Republicans for trying to mess up Presidential diplomacy, especially after Senator Tom Cotton circulated a letter signed by 47 Republicans notifying Iran that since the deal isn’t a treaty but an executive agreement, the next President can simply choose not to follow it.  Is that true?

Yes, it is.  Executive agreements historically outnumber treaties by nearly 20 to 1 since the bar for passing a treaty is so high:  2/3 of the Senate.  In fact, until 1973 the President didn’t even have to notify Congress of executive agreements!   If President Obama signs this, then it is not binding on the next President.   The next question: then how can Congress give themselves power to disapprove it?

Due to the separation of powers, Corker never really had a chance to use Congress to undermine the nuclear deal with Iran

Due to the separation of powers, Corker never really had a chance to use Congress to undermine the nuclear deal with Iran

Because part of the agreement involves removing sanctions which the Congress has the power to nix.  That gives them the capacity to intervene and try to thwart the agreement.   “So,” one of the more liberal students said, “that means that the Republicans can prevent a global agreement to limit Iran’s capacity to build nuclear weapons and thereby push us to war.  Great.”

“Not so fast,” I responded.  “Here’s the scenario:  Senator Corker wanted Congress to have final say on the deal – that approval would require Congressional action.  He could not get enough Democrats on board for that, so instead Congress only has the power to disapprove.  If they do that, President Obama could veto that disapproval and opponents of the deal would need 67 Senators on their side to override the veto.  That means a number of Democrats would have to oppose it.”

“But even that won’t stop the deal.   If there is a deal, nothing Congress does can prevent it from becoming reality due to the nature of the separation of powers.”

This is a global deal, backed by the UN Security Council and the EU.  They don't need to listen to the US Congress.

This is a global deal, backed by the UN Security Council and the EU. They don’t need to listen to the US Congress.

That brought puzzled looks from students, so I continued, “Note that this is a UN Security Council negotiation, not a bilateral US-Iranian deal.  That means the US would be just one party to the agreement.  If a deal is signed, it will quickly become a Security Council resolution, meaning that the international sanctions regime the US helped put in place will end.  Russia, China, the EU and the rest of the world will start to do business with Iran.  If the US Congress disapproves the agreement, that only keeps US sanctions in place – and that probably would hurt the US more than Iran!  Moreover, the US would lose clout in how to enforce and maintain the agreement, if we are not party to it.”

In other words, since the UN Ambassador is part of the executive branch of government, Congress has no influence over how the US votes in the Security Council.   That’s Obama’s trump card – if a deal is reached, there really is nothing Congress can do, the sanctions regime will end regardless of how the Congress votes.   And that’s exactly how things are playing themselves out!

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  1. #1 by Sara J. Taylor on July 23, 2015 - 12:52

    Thank you for clarifying the often confusing rules of American politics. This gives me hope that the US Congress does not have as much power to obstruct the governing of the country as they lead us to believe.

  2. #2 by Sara J. Taylor on July 23, 2015 - 12:53

    Reblogged this on To India to Improve the Health of Women and commented:
    This gives me hope that the US Congress does not have as much power to obstruct the governing of the country as they lead us to believe.

  3. #3 by SShiell on July 25, 2015 - 15:57

    What is left for Congress to stop? As far as sanctions are concerned, Obama went around Congress when he went directly to the UN to clear the sanctions from the rest of the world. As far as sanctions is concerned, the US is left holding an empty bag if Congress kills the deal.

    But there are other areas where killing the agreement can still be effective.
    1) The US committing to defend the Iranian program from any attack (i.e. Israel)
    2) Allowing and assisting Iran to develop more sophisticated centrifuges
    3) Releasing about $150 Billion of seized assets back to Iran to use for whatever purpose they desire (terrorism for example)
    There are others but you get the picture.

    And remember, it may be a wonderful thing going around Congress. But I wonder if your opinion will be the same when some day in the future a Republican President does the same thing with a Democratic dominated Congress? Even a Republican President has access to pencils and paper. Just wondering out loud.

    • #4 by Scott Erb on July 25, 2015 - 17:29

      Congress doesn’t have authority over the rest of the world, so going to the UN doesn’t really go around Congress. And certainly President Bush used his executive power extensively. I’m sure a Republican will do the same with a Democratic Congress, it’s the nature of the political game. Whether he went “around” Congress is of course in question. If he can get 34 Senate votes the US will be part of the agreement.

      What happened is that unlike President Bush, President Obama was able to build a strong international sanctions regime in against Iran. The Iranians probably never wanted the bomb (per the CIA), but could use the cat and mouse game to its domestic advantage (gain nationalist support by standing up to the West). All that changed when the sanctions regime started to have an impact. Suddenly this cat and mouse nuke game was hurting Iran bad. It brought them to the negotiating table.

      The US had to then try to prevent China and Russia from breaking out of the sanctions regime prematurely (they probably would have broken it in not too long anyway) by getting the best deal possible with Iran while the sanctions were in place. That’s better than war (the Pentagon has war gamed this, with no good result), better than bombing Iranian facilities (it would play into the hardliners’ hands, Iran would play the victim, and we’d never know if we actually ended their program), and has a chance to not only succeed but help the reform movement in Iran. As western businesses flock to Iran, look at market forces to continue to push for change in Iran.

      • #5 by SShiell on July 26, 2015 - 04:52

        No one has advocated war as the only alternative – except Obama and Lurch, oops I mean John Kerry. War as the only alternative is and always has been a false choice. And when challenged, a viable alternative is to do nothing. Let the sanctions continue to work – which they are or were doing.

        Meanwhile you have not responded to other factors which would benefit the US by killing this deal, sanctions notwithstanding. I will repeat:
        1) The US committing to defend the Iranian program from any attack (i.e. Israel)
        2) Allowing and assisting Iran to develop more sophisticated centrifuges
        3) Releasing about $150 Billion of seized assets back to Iran to use for whatever purpose they desire (terrorism for example).

        PS: I’d really like to know your source for “the Pentagon has war gamed this, with no good result.” Having served in the Pentagon for several tours totaling 7 years, I know that kind of information is and always has been, highly classified. I would not doubt there may be rumors of such findings and pundits offering their opinions and such but that kind of information is not and should not be freely available.

  4. #6 by Scott Erb on July 26, 2015 - 07:57

    I don’t recall my original source of Pentagon war games against Iran, which were pretty detailed, but a quick google found these that strike the same theme:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/20/world/middleeast/united-states-war-game-sees-dire-results-of-an-israeli-attack-on-iran.html?_r=0

    http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2008/08/07/why-the-pentagon-thinks-attacking-iran-is-a-bad-idea

    I think the first explains why it’s important we don’t allow an attack of the Iranian program from Israel – and we should make Israel know that they depend on us for defense and economic well being. They’re putting our support in peril if they were to go against US policy and attack.

    I think they have a lot more things to spend money on than terrorism, and I think engagement makes support for terrorism less likely. I do think it’s rational for Iran to develop a peaceful nuclear program, given their lack of refineries and their desire to get the most economic benefit from oil sales. Look, Netanyahu two years ago warned Iran was just about a year from having the bomb. Now he says this deal makes it 10 to 15 years away. That’s quite an improvement, and buys time to make sure they never get the bomb (it also gives time for the Iranian reformers to continue their push). The alternative would likely be war or a hurried Iranian timetable. This deal is best option.

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