There have been many times in American history when Congress has played a constructive foreign policy role. There have been other times when its role has been counterproductive to foreign policy success. As we move to the final stages of the Iran nuclear negotiations, there is room for the former. But the Iran Nuclear Agreement Act of 2015, the bill whose principal co-sponsors are Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerBob CorkerA guide to the committees: Senate Republicans play clean up on Trump's foreign policy GOP Congress unnerved by Trump bumps MORE (R-Tenn.) and former ranking minority member Sen. Bob MenendezRobert MenendezSteve Mnuchin, foreclosure king, now runs your US Treasury Senate Dems move to nix Trump's deportation order Senators to Trump: We support additional Iran sanctions MORE (D-N.J.), risks the latter.
The Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) recently agreed to in Switzerland, building on the November 2013 original JCPOA, made significant strides, including some restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program that went further than many anticipated. But it had less clarity and specificity than optimal. The Obama administration and its P5+1 partners (European allies Britain, France and Germany as well as China and Russia) have a lot of work to do by the end of June for a comprehensive agreement that provides high confidence that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons.
But in the name of preventing a bad deal, the Corker-Menendez bill weaves a procedural spider web for congressional review and includes a poison pill provision that hinders, rather than helps, getting a good deal. The procedural web starts with a five-day initial reporting requirement for the June comprehensive agreement, including full analysis of its components and a verification assessment. Even for less complex international agreements, it usually takes at least a month for all elements to be analyzed and the reliability of verification to be assessed by State Department, intelligence community and other experts. Quick turnaround is even harder when negotiations go up to deadlines and indeed into overtime, as did the first two rounds and as this final round almost certainly will. If Congress truly wants quality information to work with on this issue, the five-day turnaround is self-defeating.
If Congress opts for a resolution of disapproval, whatever the Obama administration had agreed to would be null and void. The president could veto it, subject to two-thirds majority overrides. But even if the veto were to stand, it would only be after politically bloody battles along Pennsylvania Avenue and on the airwaves, in the newspapers and social media, severely wounding — even if not killing — the agreement.
Either way, during these 60 days most sanctions could not even be reduced, let alone more fully waived. The sanctions lever does need to be carefully calibrated for proportionality and reciprocity in the sequencing of sanctions relief to Iranian nonproliferation compliance. Precluding any immediate sanctions relief upon signing an agreement is as much a non-starter as Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini's recent statement that all sanctions should be lifted upon signing.
The poison pill is the linkage to Iranian terrorism. Of course, we want to reduce and eliminate Iranian terrorism. Views vary among experts whether working out the nuclear issue can provide basis for progress on this and other aspects of relations with Iran. But linkage imposed post hoc and unilaterally by the American Congress is not the way to do it. It plays right into the hands of spoilers, like Iranian hardliners unable to block the agreement politically being handed another way of blowing things up (literally as well as figuratively). Or what if Hezbollah committed terrorism against American or Israeli targets for its own reasons that, given the Iranian support it gets, could be interpreted as tripping this clause?
Congress doesn't need Corker-Menendez to have a significant say on an Iran deal. The Obama administration would do well to more closely and regularly consult with congressional leaders, privately but genuinely — not just briefing or lobbying — just as other presidents have done on other major arms control issues.
Congressional hearings over the next few months, if conducted by all sides more as policy deliberation than political contestation, can provide a useful forum for engaging the American public, and focusing in on key issues like verification.
As to sanctions, Congress already has its hand on the sanctions lever since many of the sanctions are based on statutes and require congressional action to be lifted. New sanctions could be imposed if Iran is noncompliant.
Congress also has inherent oversight authority. All presidents and their executive branch teams do need this accountability, checking the natural temptation to want something you say is going to work to be seen as doing so.
American history is replete with examples both of a too limited role for Congress contributing to foreign policy failure and an overly intrusive one doing so. We're at our best when Congress and the president work together whether in a consensus or in constructively managing differences. There is an opportunity to do this on the Iran issue. Corker-Menendez is not the way.
Jentleson is professor of public policy and political science at Duke University, and a global fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.