National Security & Defense

Setting the Record Straight on Congress’s Review of the Obama-Iran Nuclear Deal

Senators Bob Corker (left) and Bob Menendez on Capitol Hill. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
While not ultimately successful, opponents of President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal did important work by passing the Iran Nuclear Review Act of 2015.

In a recent editorial on possible nominations for secretary of state, National Review’s editors repeated the notion that by voting in favor of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (INARA), Congress somehow “facilitated” the deal’s path through Congress. That notion is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of our Constitution and the relative powers of Congress and the president in foreign policy. And it’s important for conservatives to get this right.

Many people think that Congress ought to have “forced” the president to submit the Iran deal as a treaty. In fact, Congress had no way to do that, because the president was misusing waiver authorities granted in prior sanctions and therefore didn’t need Congress to implement the deal at all. Without INARA, Congress might never even have seen the deal and would certainly never have voted, by bipartisan majorities in both houses, to reject it. The fact that 98 members of the U.S. Senate and 400 members of the House voted to force President Obama to submit the Iran nuclear deal to congressional review was a significant defeat for the Obama administration.

In the spring of 2015, as President Obama and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani were putting the finishing touches on a wholly inadequate and disappointing nuclear deal, Congress had no way to stop it. President Obama planned to use the waiver authorities already provided to him in U.S. law to relieve sanctions in exchange for minimal curbs by Iran on its nuclear activities.

Thus, the president had no legal obligation to submit the deal to the Senate as a treaty or to both Houses as a congressional-executive agreement. Indeed, Obama made clear he didn’t plan to submit the deal to Congress, and told the Iranians as much. Only INARA, which passed with veto-proof majorities, forced him to come to Congress.

INARA was authored by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) and other Republican anti-Iran hardliners, including Senators John McCain (R., Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), Ted Cruz (R., Texas), and others. The bill also was strongly supported by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), hardly a squishy organization on Iran issues or one looking to facilitate a bad Obama-Iran deal.

By suspending the president’s ability to waive Iran-related nuclear sanctions until the final deal was submitted to Congress, the bill gave Congress the time to review and vote on the deal before it went into effect, potentially halting implementation ahead of time. None of this would have occurred without the bill.

Of course, even though Congress voted by bipartisan majorities to disapprove the deal, it wasn’t able to muster the votes to stop the deal. But to be clear, had Congress never passed INARA, there would have been no requirement to submit the deal to Congress, no revelation of all its flaws, and no time for Congress to vote — the deal would have simply been a fait accompli.

Had Congress never passed INARA, there would have been no requirement to submit the deal to Congress, no revelation of all its flaws, and no time for Congress to vote.

Some argue that Congress should have “made” the Iran deal a treaty or forced the president to submit it to Congress as such. These arguments neglect reality and simple math. The fact is that since a previous Congress already gave the president waiver authority to get rid of sanctions, Congress had only one option to try to make it a treaty: get a veto-proof majority of Senators to vote for such a move — an impossibility when 46 senators belonged to the president’s party.

INARA was the best approach to try to get Democrats to reject the nuclear deal. Once the weaknesses of the nuclear deal became apparent, moderate Democrats joined anti-Iran Republicans to make the bill bipartisan. The first Democrat to do so was Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, hardly soft on Iran or an enabler of the Obama administration’s Iran policy. To the contrary, Senator Menendez was one of the lawmakers that authored many of the very sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table.

Given this support — and despite a threat from President Obama to veto the bill — numerous Democrats ultimately backed the bill and INARA ultimately became law.

#related#So, what did the American people get from INARA? Transparency, for one thing. INARA forced the Obama administration to submit the deal to Congress so the American people could see just how bad it was. Congress got a real vote on the deal. And even though lawmakers couldn’t defeat it, INARA made clear that the deal lacked any real political support in Congress. It also forced those who supported the deal to go on the record with their support, which helped undermine many Democrats’ election prospects. And now, INARA has created the political force that will allow President-elect Trump the opportunity to wipe out the deal and revive pressure on Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.

None of this would have been possible without INARA. Far from allowing the nuclear deal to go through, it was, until last week’s election, the only possible chance to stop it. For that, conservatives ought to be thanking the Republicans who voted almost unanimously for the bill, not attacking them for President Obama’s shameful embrace of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.

— Lester Munson previously served as staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is currently a vice president at BGR Group and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. Jamil Jaffer previously served as chief counsel and senior adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is currently an adjunct professor of law and director of the Homeland and National Security Law Program at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Editor’s Note: This article has been emended since its original publication.

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