Memo: Congress Considers Its Options on an Iran Deal

With growing confidence that a framework nuclear deal with Iran will be sealed before the March 31 deadline, Congress is turning its attention to oversight of any nuclear agreement. Two recently introduced Senate bills offer a lesson in contrasts as to how Congress may approach its oversight role and serve as a reminder that Congressional interference still poses a considerable hurdle to a peaceful resolution of the nuclear dispute.

The Corker-Menendez Bill

S. 615, the ‘Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act’, goes well beyond additional oversight and risks scuttling a nuclear deal. Introduced by Senators Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, and Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, this legislation makes less — rather than more — likely our ability to peacefully secure a nuclear deal with Iran.

S.615 would delay the implementation of a nuclear deal for 60 days – restricting the President’s authority to suspend sanctions. It provides Congress a mechanism to vote down a deal, which would revoke the President’s sanctions waiver authorities and prevent a deal from being implemented. The effect would be to force the U.S. to violate its commitments, likely isolating itself from its international partners while freeing Iran from the tough constraints of a nuclear deal as well as any multilateral sanctions.

The Corker-Menendez bill would also require the President to provide certification on not just Iran’s adherence to a nuclear deal, but that Iran had not committed an act of terrorism against the United States or U.S. nationals. Failure to do so would enable Congress to consider expedited legislation to reimpose nuclear sanctions–and violate a nuclear deal. The United States should contest Iranian support for acts of terrorism, but not at the cost of reneging on a nuclear deal and freeing Iran from constraints on its nuclear program.

The Boxer Alternative

The second of these bills – S.669, the ‘Iran Congressional Oversight Act’ – takes a more balanced approach to Congressional oversight. Introduced by Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, this bill would require the President to report to Congress every 90 days on Iran’s compliance with a nuclear deal. If the President determines Iran has violated the agreement, then Congress can expedite legislation re-imposing sanctions on Iran.

Additionally, the Boxer bill clarifies the role Congress will play in lifting sanctions if and when it is required to do so under a nuclear deal. In doing this, this legislation proves a more appropriate vehicle for Congressional oversight. It does not insert Congress into the negotiations at the 11th-hour and does not stymie our chance to resolve the nuclear dispute with Iran in a peaceful manner.

The Helsinki Approach

As Congress debates its role following a nuclear deal, it is important to recall historical precedent. In cases where the President has entered into non-binding political commitments with other countries, Congress has tended to keep its distance and not interfere with the negotiations.

Where Congress has claimed a more assertive role, it has done so in ways that do not threaten either the negotiations or an agreement itself. For instance, following the Helsinki Accords, Congress passed a statute creating an independent agency whose task was to measure signatories’ compliance with the Helsinki Final Act. Congress did not threaten to kill the Accords nor to expedite legislation should a violation be found. It did not predetermine the outcome in either of these ways. Instead, it formed a more deliberate body, which continues to exist today, to soberly assess the compliance of all parties to the agreement.

In the weeks and months ahead, Congress will seek to claim institutional prerogatives to oversee a nuclear deal with Iran and to do so in ways that threaten an agreement itself. It is critical, however, that lawmakers consider past precedent and figure out how to exercise their oversight authorities in ways that strengthen the U.S.’s position in negotiations, help secure a strong nuclear deal, and sustain that nuclear deal over the long-term.

About Author

Tyler CullisTyler CullisTyler Cullis joined NIAC in March 2014 as a Policy Associate. In this position, he provides legislative and advocacy outreach, research and writing, and legal analysis. Tyler is a recent law graduate of the Boston University School of Law, where he specialized in the U.S. sanctions on Iran and the Iran nuclear issue. Tyler tweets at @TylerCullis.
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