If agreement is reached [with Iran], President Obama will do everything in his power to avoid letting Congress vote on it.
Even while negotiators argue over the number of centrifuges Iran would be allowed to spin and where inspectors could roam, the Iranians have signaled that they would accept, at least temporarily, a “suspension” of the stringent sanctions that have drastically cut their oil revenues and terminated their banking relationships with the West, according to American and Iranian officials. The Treasury Department, in a detailed study it declined to make public, has concluded Mr. Obama has the authority to suspend the vast majority of those sanctions without seeking a vote by Congress, officials say.
As frightful as that might sound — given the Obama administration’s desperation to reach a deal and a series of leaks suggesting half-baked deals that would not step Iran from becoming a nuclear-threshold state — President Obama’s threat is less potent than it might seem.
For one thing, a rotten deal would face bipartisan repudiation. The Times reports: “The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat, said over the weekend that, ‘If a potential deal does not substantially and effectively dismantle Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program, I expect Congress will respond. An agreement cannot allow Iran to be a threshold nuclear state.’ He has sponsored legislation to tighten sanctions if no agreement is reached by Nov. 24.” With Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as Senate majority leader, he would get that vote as soon as January. Although the president might veto such a measure, there may well be sufficient votes to override it, especially given public opinion regarding Obama’s handling of foreign policy. “If the White House thinks they can do a nuclear deal that leaves Tehran with nuclear weapons capability, then they are more out of touch than the president’s job approval ratings at historical lows shows,” says Josh Block, a longtime Democrat and head of the Israel Project.
Aside from reimposing and adding to sanctions, Congress can vote to repudiate the deal (symbolic, certainly, but powerful symbolism). In oversight and confirmation hearings, Congress can put the administration’s feet to the fire, exposing the deal’s flaws. The message for Iran will be: Don’t think you will get what the president promised; he won’t be able to deliver permanent sanctions relief.
An official of a pro-Israel group who spoke on condition of anonymity was emphatic: “First, to suggest that Congress does not have a role in a final Iran deal directly contradicts comments made to Congress by Secretary [of State John] Kerry. Second, it severely underestimates the ability of Congress to stop a bad deal by thwarting sanctions relief. And third, it suggests that deal which they are considering is weak and not sellable to Congress and the American people.”
But the real ace in the hole here are our allies — Israel and the Sunni states — in the region. The president has lost virtually all credibility with them (not to mention the American people), and they have no qualms about publicly and loudly objecting to a deal and moving to increase the threat of a military strike. The Saudis can restate their determination to obtain their own nuclear capability if Iran is not forced to destroy its nuclear weapons program. Congress can bolster our allies by declarations of support and the transfer to Israel of equipment such as “bunker buster” bombs.
The Obama administration has failed to muster a credible military threat or hold the line on its own position, so a satisfactory deal is highly unlikely. If it were confident of a strong deal that would garner bipartisan support, it would be anxious to get Congress to sign on. In preparing to go around Congress, it is signaling a rotten deal is forthcoming. “By preparing to bypass congressional approval of a nuclear deal with Iran, the White House is clearly signaling that the president trusts the supreme leader of Iran more than he does members of Congress or the American people,” says Block.
Come Nov. 24, either Obama will kick the can down the road or he will try to jam through a horrible deal. In either case, Congress could act to mitigate much of the harm and convince the Iranians that they will not get the benefits of a one-sided deal. With two weeks to go in the election, every Democrat should make clear whether he or she would challenge the president or, as Dems have done since 2009, carry his water at the expense of our national security. Republicans should reiterate where they stand on the issue.
Then the 2016 election can be fought on the issue of whether the next president is going to follow in Obama’s footsteps and allow Iran to go the way of North Korea. That is a fight virtually any GOP candidate would relish, one that Hillary Clinton would no doubt dread. She might actually have to let her base and the general electorate in on whether she is Obama with tougher rhetoric or a clear-sighted leader who would use military force rather than see Iran go nuclear. The latter would require her to denounce the sort of deal Obama is likely to make.