February 13, 2015

How Congress Can Learn to Stop Scuttling and Love the Iran Nuke Talks

Capitol Hill has been more hassle then help when it comes to getting to yes with Iran. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Secretary of State John Kerry Testifies To Senate Committee On International Affairs Budget For FY2015

Now that President Barack Obama has promised to veto any legislation that imposes new sanctions on Iran, a clash between the White House and Congress seems inevitable. Republican congressional leaders have vowed to push ahead with new sanctions, despite the potential costs to the international effort to assure that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful. Those opposed to diplomacy with Iran have even upped the ante, inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress on March 3, where he will inevitably denounce Obama’s diplomacy with Iran. The dispute between the White House and the hard-line factions on Capitol Hill seems intractable — and may even derail efforts at reaching an agreement in the ongoing talks with Iran completely.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a solution that can satisfy both the White House and Congress and serve broader U.S. interests. It may sound crazy, but Congress could actually take a bold move that would allow it to get everything that Congress members claim to want in the negotiations, while actually helping to move along, rather than just scuttle, the talks.

Two major sets of hurdles remain in the talks with Iran: one concerning the size and scope of the country’s future enrichment capacity, the other the pace at which U.S. and other international sanctions are lifted. To get the Iranians to move on the first hurdle, Washington needs to take action to address the second.

The greatest problem facing the talks with Iran is a lack of confidence and good faith. The Iranians have insisted repeatedly that the United States remove its most major sanctions at the front end of any nuclear deal, citing the fickle nature of Congress and the uncertainty that the next administration will honor the agreement. Understandably, Washington has rejected this demand, believing that sanctions preserve U.S. leverage throughout the duration of a nuclear deal and thus should only be removed gradually and in tandem with Iran fulfilling its nuclear-related obligations.

Bridging this gap by offering more sanctions relief or threatening more sanctions may be futile. The problem is not that Tehran doubts Washington’s commitment to imposing more sanctions. The problem is, instead, that the Iranians doubt Obama’s ability to follow through on the promise of sanctions relief already on the table due to the tensions between the White House and Congress that are clearly visible from Tehran. The less confidence the Iranians have that the American side can uphold its end of an agreement, the more likely the Iranians will hold back from making the key compromises necessary to seal a deal and resolve the decade-old nuclear dispute. Only increasing the credibility of the sanctions relief already offered can actually bridge this gap.

And the credibility gap is not a matter of mere perception, either. There are real question marks about what kind of assurances the U.S. side can provide in the negotiations as long as the disagreement between the White House and Congress is not resolved. In a closed-door retreat with Democrats on Jan. 15, even Obama noted that this fight threatens to undermine his authority in the negotiations and could lead others to blame Washington if the talks fail.

The fact is that the president simply lacks the power to lift the sanctions (rather than merely suspend them). After all, only Congress has the authority to lift sanctions Congress has imposed. Secretary of State John Kerry and his negotiating team can make commitments to the Iranians in Geneva, but those promises all too often sound hollow to Iranian ears who know that it is senators from New Jersey or representatives from Florida who hold the power when it comes to lifting sanctions.

Right now, sanctions proponents in Congress argue that a bill that will commit the president to additional sanctions if the talks collapse will break the deadlock. That is why Senators Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) introduced the legislation earlier this year. A version of it will likely be brought for a vote later in March. This doesn’t only threaten to kill the talks — though it certainly does that. It also assumes that a lack of pressure has caused the present stalemate, not a lack of confidence. This assumption is wrong.

But Congress could play a productive role in the negotiations if it would pass legislation that addresses the lack of confidence. Such a bill would grant the president authorization to lift the sanctions on a timeline agreed to at the negotiations and only on the condition that Iran has scrupulously adhered to its own commitments under any nuclear deal. This would absolve Congress of the need to lift sanctions itself, which is a politically difficult and challenging task, while protecting its legal authority by retaining the power to override any proposed lifting of sanctions.

Perhaps some members of Congress doubt that more sanctions will be imposed if the talks fail. In that case, they could introduce a legislative package that firmly commits the United States to implementing additional punitive measures in the event that Kerry’s negotiating team and their Iranian counterparts fail to reach a final deal. That potential legislation would not just bind the president to new sanctions in the case of failure, but it would also bind Congress to relieving sanctions if the talks succeed. If this is the price necessary to secure a more credible option for sanctions relief, the administration and Congress would be wise to consider it.

This might seem like dreaming big but it is actually the most logical conclusion for all of the players involved. Moreover, conventional solutions will not break the current impasse. It will have to be an out-of-the-box solution.

The net effect of this would be to cement sanctions-lifting authorities in the hands of the president and thus strengthen the United States’ hand at the negotiations, while signaling to Tehran the negative consequences a failure to reach a deal would bring. Endowed with the power to credibly promise sanctions relief to Iran, U.S. negotiators could demand further movement from the Iranians on the issue of enrichment capacity.

Skeptics will contend that Congress is unlikely to provide the president more power than he already has. But Congress has always claimed that it is working to strengthen U.S. leverage at the negotiating table. As Menendez wrote in an op-ed last year, “[T]hese prospective sanctions play a positive and reinforcing role in negotiations. The big winner is the administration.”

It is time for members of Congress to understand what enhanced leverage looks like. Doing so could put Congress and the president in step in a last-ditch effort to solve the Iranian nuclear puzzle. But they had better do it soon. A June deadline for negotiations is looming. Brave and bold action is needed in the weeks ahead.

This piece originally appeared in Foreign Policy.

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