Two “must pass” bills that Congress will consider this week before adjourning for the year would provide formalized oversight for Congress to monitor the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran.
While there have been calls from some in Congress to pass new sanctions that would violate the interim nuclear agreement with Iran or to establish mechanisms enabling Congress to vote down any final nuclear deal, for now Congress appears to have opted for a pragmatic approach of seeking more formalized reporting and information sharing regarding the negotiations and implementation of the interim deal and any final deal.
The new measures would be included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), an annual bill to establish policies and programs at the Department of Defense through the next fiscal year, and a comprehensive spending bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security through February 27 and other government agencies through the next fiscal year. The NDAA, in particular, has often been a vehicle for legislation on Iran and has in recent years been the vehicle through which the most significant Iran sanctions have been passed into law. That bill is expected to pass later this week, while the spending bill also must be passed this week to avoid a government shutdown but may face hurdles.
The defense bill will require the administration to submit regular reports on Iran’s compliance with the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) or any comprehensive accord. Under Sec. 1271 of the NDAA, the administration will submit a report to Congress within thirty days of enactment to verify whether Iran is complying with the terms of the agreement, along with a general update on the status of Iran’s nuclear program. A similar report would be required if the agreement is extended again or if a comprehensive agreement is reached, along with subsequent reports every 180 days (six months) thereafter.
The comprehensive spending bill similarly would require reports on Iran’s implementation of the JPOA and the status of its nuclear program to be submitted to Congress every thirty days, via Sec. 7041 (b). These reports will detail Iran’s projected “breakout time,” or the amount of time it would take Iran to obtain sufficient fissile material for one nuclear weapon were it to abandon current restrictions on its program, as well as to evaluate inspection and verification measures included in the JPOA and any additional verification measures that might be needed to detect the possibility of clandestine Iranian nuclear activities. The bill also requires extensive reporting on the status of bilateral and multilateral sanctions against Iran, including U.S. enforcement efforts as well as a list of all entities that may be in violation of the sanctions.
Taken together, these reporting requirements strengthen Congressional oversight on the Iran negotiations and could potentially quell support for legislation that risks killing an agreement. Many in Congress have expressed frustration with what they claim has been a lack of engagement by the Administration on the status of the negotiations. These frustrations could pose a danger.
A bill sponsored by Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would have established an immediate up-or-down vote in Congress following the striking of an accord. While envisaged as a measure to ensure that Congress has a say in a final deal, Corker’s measure provoked criticism that it would have made any final deal impossible to secure. The proposal was roundly criticized by witnesses at a recent hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—where Corker serves as the top Republican. Corker, who will take the reigns as the committee chairman in the Republican-led Senate next year, has suggested he may take a more cautious approach towards any new legislation that could risk disrupting nuclear negotiations, and has expressed some circumspection regarding new sanctions advocated by the outgoing committee chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ).
Other Iran-Related Provisions
A few other controversial provisions were left out of the final version of the NDAA, including language calling on the administration to provide weapons systems to Israel that would facilitate unilateral Israeli strikes against Iran and language that would have called for any final nuclear deal to end Iranian support for terrorism and give up conventional weapons systems.
However, the spending bill reestablishes non-binding policy language stating that “it is the policy of the United States to seek to prevent Iran from achieving the capability to produce or otherwise manufacture nuclear weapons, including by supporting international diplomatic efforts to halt Iran’s uranium enrichment program.” This language contradicts the aims of the P5+1 and the terms of the JPOA, which states that Iran will be permitted to retain a “mutually-defined” enrichment program. NIAC has strongly opposed previous Congressional attempts to shift U.S. policy from preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon to preventing a loosely defined “Iranian nuclear capability,” and notes that such language could diminish perceptions that Congress can be a true partner in the diplomatic process. Nevertheless, the provision is non-binding and is buried in the massive spending bill, meaning that it is unlikely to be a major factor for legislators.
No New Sanctions
The expected passage of both the NDAA and the spending bill are also noteworthy for what they do not contain: Iran sanctions or any other provisions curtailing the administration’s ability to strike a nuclear deal. Senator Menendez speculated as recently as last week that he would attempt to insert new Iran sanctions into the NDAA. However, his approach was also criticized at the most recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Iran that the Senator chaired. Moreover, opening the NDAA or spending bill to amendments would likely derail each measure and trigger a government shutdown. Rather than open the bills up to amendments and risk the addition of controversial provisions such as Iran sanctions, the bills will be brought to the floor for up or down votes. As a result, all potential pathways to pass new Iran sanctions during the 113th Congress appear to be closed.
Looking forward, however, a vocal majority of the Republican caucus has been clamoring for a vote on Iran sanctions all year. With Republicans taking control of the Senate in January, they could make good on their threats to pass new sanctions that would kill the deal. While a few Republicans including Sens. Corker and Rand Paul (R-KY) have sounded notes of caution, they currently appear to be in the minority of their caucus.