It has become a constant refrain that members of Congress are prepared to take action against Iran should the nuclear negotiations break down. But instead of merely prepping for failure, it is critical that Capitol Hill start preparing for the possibility of a diplomatic success. Because unless Congress is ready to delegate to the president the necessary authorities to begin lifting sanctions if and when a deal is reached, those same sanctions that many in Congress credit for the recent diplomatic progress could end up being the biggest obstacle to a nuclear deal.
Over the past decade, Congress has put in place a vast network of economic and financial sanctions aimed at imposing significant costs on Iran. As a recent NIAC report details, the President has retained broad authorities to temporarily waive many of the sanctions but has been left with very limited authorities to more permanently lift the sanctions in order to secure (and sustain) Iranian nuclear concessions. Practically speaking, right now, the core U.S. sanctions on Iran’s energy and financial sectors can only be lifted through an act of Congress.
Unless the White House and Capitol Hill work together to establish the requisite authorities for sanctions to be lifted, U.S. negotiators will be limited to offering Iran only temporary waivers that will end up being litigated and re-litigated in Congress every six months. Such a proposal would require Iranian negotiators to simply trust that the U.S. would continually make good on its promises, absent any verified guarantees.
Anyone who considers this a viable proposition should consider the perspective on the other end of the negotiating table: would the U.S. be willing to offer major concessions to Iran in lieu of reciprocal and verifiable concessions, simply on the basis of trust?
Of course not.
In that light, we can expect Iran would only match time-limited sanctions relief from the U.S. with similarly limited and reversible nuclear concessions. And if that ends up being the case, we will not have a recipe for a strong or a successful nuclear deal.
Moreover, if U.S. negotiators pledge more permanent measures at the negotiating table but then are forced to renege on the deal because Congress does not lift the sanctions as agreed, we could enter a scenario in which the international coalition built over the past decade would fragment under a U.S. failure to uphold the agreement. The sanctions would collapse without Iran having to make good on a single concession limiting its nuclear program.
The White House is aware of this problem. Just before U.S. diplomats left for last week’s nuclear talks in Vienna, a senior administration official told reporters that the White House is “doing a considerable amount of work, including consultations with Congress . . . to understand in great detail how to unwind the sanctions.”
And Capitol Hill is aware, too. In several recent letters to the White House, Congress has advised that the president must work with lawmakers should a final deal requiring long-term sanctions relief be reached. While some may cynically advocate that Congress assert itself in this process so that it can veto an eventual deal and deny the White House a potential victory, most in Congress prefer a diplomatic solution to further escalation towards a military adventure. However big the turf war between the administration and Congress, both should be able to work together to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran and avert a real war.
This will require, at the very least, a re-evaluation of the current authorizations for the president to terminate the sanctions. Eventually, legislation would be required to provide authorities needed for the president to more permanently lift sanctions, all the while ensuring the right balance of Congressional oversight.
Some may not believe that Congress and the president can put aside their differences to iron out a solution to one of the most polarizing foreign policy issues in Washington. But if U.S. and Iran negotiators can sit down at the negotiating table and work on overcoming more than three decades of mutual distrust, it should not be too farfetched to hope that Congress and the White House can reach agreement on lifting sanctions so that a major national security victory does not slip through our fingers.
Abdi is the policy director of the National Iranian American Council. Cullis is policy associate at the National Iranian American Council.