Congress Lays Tripwires for Iran Nuclear Accord

03/20/2015 12:37 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2015

As negotiators work to clear the final hurdles for a framework nuclear deal with Iran, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) and Ranking Member Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) have decided to delay a markup of a bill that would lay tripwires that threaten any final deal. Diplomacy has been given more time to succeed, yet the threat of congressional obstruction still looms on the horizon. The committee will now consider the bill on April 14 after a two-week recess, in what could be the first congressional action on Iran following a potential diplomatic breakthrough. While Corker has sold the bill as a way to ensure that Congress can "weigh in" on an agreement, legislators supportive of a negotiated solution to the Iran nuclear crisis should recognize the bill for what it is: a dangerously written measure that injects new demands into the negotiations and risks laying the foundation to kill a historic agreement.

There are three major tripwires that the Corker bill would impose on a deal.

First, the legislation would delay implementation of any deal for 60 days while Congress decides whether or not to reject the accord. This poses a major problem because it means Congress would be injecting a new demand into the talks. If an accord is reached, the timeline of a deal will be carefully worked out between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany and Iran. Congress would be jumping in at the 11th hour to demand that the negotiators discard the implementation schedule in order to build in a two-month buffer window for Congress to consider whether or not they want to kill the agreement.

Further, one of the major benefits of a nuclear deal is that it would empower Iranian moderates and isolate hardliners who have opposed any form of reconciliation with the West, potentially leading to positive reverberations outside the nuclear issue. However, unilateral moves by the U.S. Congress to halt implementation would lead to the opposite. The 60-day delay on implementation would give hardliners time to dissect and condemn every Iranian concession, while moderates who brokered the deal would be left to defend the concessions after the U.S. reneged on the timeline and without any tangible sanctions relief to point to. This could complicate the moderates' ability to fully implement the terms of an agreement and, in turn, enable opponents in the U.S. to retaliate in response.

The second tripwire requires the president to certify throughout the duration of the agreement that Iran is not providing support or financing for terrorism. If the president fails to make the certification, Congress would be empowered to expedite consideration of legislation to snap sanctions back into place, effectively nullifying the deal. Countering Iranian support for terrorism is, of course, a worthwhile and necessary undertaking. However, it should not be inserted into a nuclear deal. We don't want to be in a position where Iran is upholding the nuclear deal but the president is unable to make certifications on non-nuclear issues, forcing us to renege on the agreement. Such a requirement would shift the goalposts of the negotiations, which are focused solely on the nuclear issue, and guarantee that we neither get a nuclear deal nor address Iranian support for terrorism.

The final tripwire, which has received the most attention, enables Congress to pass a congressional vote of disapproval to revoke the president's sanctions-waiver authorities. A vote of disapproval would need a simple majority to pass, which could be secured solely through partisan opposition to the agreement. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) will use the vote of disapproval to turn the screws against Democrats and force anyone who isn't willing to destroy U.S. international credibility for political gain into taking a very tough vote. Even if they fail to override the expected veto, they will be empowered to continue their efforts to kill a deal after the 60-day review period ends.

The fact that this legislation presents severe complications for negotiations should not come as a surprise. The last several weeks have seen absurd partisan maneuvers by hawkish Republicans aimed at undercutting the negotiations, highlighted by the letter from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Kentucky) and 46 of his fellow hawks in the Senate warning Iran's leaders not to trust the president of the United States. S.615 would help these saboteurs achieve their goal of scuttling the talks and lead to an expanding Iranian nuclear program and an increasing likelihood of war.

There are alternative measures available to Congress that would increase congressional oversight without threatening to scuttle a potentially historic accord. For example, the bill from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California), the Iran Congressional Oversight Act (S.669), would require reports on Iran's adherence to an agreement and, if Iran violates its commitments, expedite the snapback of sanctions. Further, in the wake of the Helsinki Accords, Congress created an independent commission to monitor signatories' compliance with the accord. Either the Boxer bill or a Helsinki-like commission could potentially be a workable alternative to S.615. Critically, neither of these options interferes with the implementation timeline, inserts issues outside the scope of negotiations, or risks a rash rejection of what would be a historic, multilateral agreement.

As the parties inch ever closer to a historic agreement, would-be congressional spoilers will only intensify their efforts to throw a wrench in the works. Legislators who want to secure a diplomatic solution shouldn't ease their path by supporting S.615.