Get Congress Out of the Way

Co-authored with the National Iranian American Council’s Policy Director, Jamal Abdi, I have a post over at CNN regarding how Congress is getting in the way of a strong and secure deal with Iran.

The basic point is this: If, as Iran hawks claim, the goal of the new Iran sanctions bill is to empower the President to get as best a deal as possible during the upcoming talks with Iran, then the bill poorly serves that purpose. Rather than empowering the President, the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act undercuts the President by both forcing on him the terms of a final deal with Iran and significantly limiting his ability to waive the sanctions should that deal be reached. This makes so little sense, in fact, that one need question whether the stated goal is not merely a ruse meant to hide ulterior motives (e.g., barring rapprochement with Iran altogether).

As we argue instead, if Congress wants to empower the President, it has ample room to do so. For one, it can signal trust in U.S. negotiators by allowing them free reign to work out the terms of a final deal with Iran. As Nicholas Burns, the chief U.S. negotiator with Iran during the Bush II administration, recently noted, it is far better to have one person negotiating on behalf of the United States than 525. Congress needs to get out of the business of conducting foreign policy and instead leave that to the branch of government most suited for it: the Executive. It has become an increasingly unseemly sight for Congress to run roughshod of each and every of Obama’s diplomatic victories.

Second, Congress can provide the White House the ability not merely to waive sanctions on a time-limited basis should a deal be reached with Iran, but also to lift the sanctions permanently. As we note, the fact that the best the President can offer Iran right now are limited waivers of existing sanctions crimps Obama’s leverage during negotiations. If Iran has serious concerns about the ability of the White House to follow through on any deal reached, then Iran will be able to extract better terms from the United States than would otherwise be possible. Such an outcome makes no sense if the ultimate goal of negotiations is to secure a strong deal that puts serious constraints on Iran’s nuclear program. The less the White House has to offer, the less Iran will be willing to give up at the negotiating table.

But things are topsy-turvy in Washington. Congress speaks of empowering the President by limiting his authority to negotiate a deal and lift sanctions once a deal is secured. Meanwhile, those who advocate for Congress to extend plenary power to the White House to secure a final and comprehensive deal with Iran and to use sanctions relief as a leverage point are most often labeled as appeasers for the Iranians. It is increasingly difficult to find a coherent and principled discussion of U.S. policy towards Iran in Congress. Why, then, should these people be handling a matter as critical as nuclear proliferation?

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