A critical player, necessary for any lasting deal, was not represented at last week’s negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program in Geneva: Congress. Only lawmakers have the power to give Iran the long-term relief from economic sanctions that it wants. But while an overwhelming bipartisan consensus exists on Capitol Hill about how to negotiate with Tehran, it differs from the approach favored by the White House. If diplomacy is to succeed, these two branches will have to develop a joint strategy before the next round of talks.
The goal of preventing a nuclear Iran has always been a bipartisan one, embraced by presidents of both parties. But it is in Congress that this consensus has been most pronounced. Though perceived as mired in gridlock, lawmakers have passed sanctions against Iran every year for the last five years. The most controversial of these measures garnered 70 percent of the votes. The majority pass with near unanimity.
Congress has pursued aggressive sanctions against Iran at every turn possible, including now, as necessary to pressure it to negotiate in good faith. The Obama administration has sought a more measured approach, especially entering into these negotiations. Economic pain has already brought Tehran to the table, they argue. Additional sanctions might only scare them away.
This difference in tactics has sparked mistrust between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue on two attendant issues: what concessions to demand and what to offer in return. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have asserted that U.S. national security concerns will only be addressed if Iran ceases all uranium enrichment. Likewise, they are wary of offering Iran any relief from sanctions until it has met this demand. As an interim deal neared last week, many expressed concern that the administration was prepared to overlook these principles.
Such misgivings are misplaced. Secretary of State John Kerry has repeatedly stated “no deal is better than a bad deal.” And the chief U.S. negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, testified before Congress that the administration does “not believe there is an inherent right by anyone to enrichment.”
Nevertheless, the wariness between the two branches has to be addressed, lest undermine diplomacy. While the White House is responsible for conducting talks, only Congress can grant Iran the complete sanctions relief needed to make a deal stick.
A tangled and multi-layered web of sanctions, built over decades, will prove complicated to undo. Created by both Executive Orders and legislation, some allow for temporary waivers or suspensions by the White House, others require congressional action to rescind.
While the President can use waivers to offer Iran immediate relief, they must be repeatedly renewed, rendering their utility limited. Tehran will not relinquish its nuclear program for such temporary and unpredictable measures. Thus, any final and lasting deal will require lawmakers’ assent to repeal sanctions. They might withhold it, if disappointed by the deal’s terms. Worse yet, should Iran come to believe the administration cannot deliver sanctions relief, it might abandon negotiations.
To avert these scenarios, Congress and the White House should develop and adopt a joint approach before the next round of talks begin. Advising and reassuring lawmakers about negotiations after the fact, as the administration is doing this week, will not suffice.
It is in the administration’s interest to lock in congressional support for a sanctions relief package now. But to do so, it should be willing to lessen its opposition to additional sanctions and acknowledge lawmakers’ concerns about the content of any deal. Congress, on the other hand, could compromise by passing sanctions, but delaying their implementation, as well as committing to make it easier to repeal sanctions later in return for having a say in what terms are offered to Iran now.
The framework for such cooperation could be created through legislation that:
First, enumerates the specific elements that Congress expects a deal with Iran to include.
Second, requires the president to certify that all of these elements have, or have not, been agreed to by Iran when a deal is reached.
Third, provides for implementation of the additional sanctions, but to be triggered only if the president fails to certify that all of the elements have been agreed to by Iran.
Fourth, if the president certifies that all of the elements have been agreed to, creates expedited procedures for the consideration of legislation terminating those sanctions required by that deal.
Bipartisanship, which is so hard to come by lately, is commendably on full display when it comes to preventing a nuclear Iran. But something more will be needed: the executive and legislative branches need to coordinate before, not after, diplomacy resumes.
Robb is former governor and senator from Virginia. Wald is former deputy commander of U.S. European Command. They co-chair the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Iran Initiative. Misztal is the acting director of that initiative.