We surmised yesterday that the Obama administration had the idea to go to the United Nations to pass by resolution what Congress would never agree to: a lifting of sanctions on Iran in exchange for a nearly worthless deal in which Iran would keep thousands of centrifuges and get a 10-year glide path to nuclear breakout. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), seeing what was afoot, demanded an explanation from the White House, calling such a scheme an “affront to the American people.”
The U.S. has “no intention” of using the United Nations to lock into place any potential deal with Iran over its nuclear program, a senior U.S. official said on Thursday.
The United States will not be “converting U.S. political commitments under a deal with Iran into legally binding obligations through a UN Security Council resolution,” Bernadette Meehan, spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council, said in a statement emailed to BuzzFeed News.
“Past UNSC resolutions on Iran have called for a negotiated settlement of the Iran nuclear issue, and accordingly we would fully expect the UNSC to ‘endorse’ any deal with Iran and encourage its full implementation so as to resolve international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program,” Meehan continued. “But any such resolution would not change the nature of our commitments under such a deal, which would be wholly contained in the text of that deal.”
What is going on here? For starters, the existing U.N. resolutions obtained by President George W. Bush are much, much stricter than anything President Obama has indicated would be forthcoming. Those resolutions don’t permit Iran to keep thousands of centrifuges. They don’t give Iran a 10-year sunset. They require complete dismantling of Iran’s illicit program, full inspections and an accounting of past illicit behavior. In other words, any new deal negotiated by the administration would be weaker than — and in fact, in violation of — existing U.N. resolutions. That is why Obama would need to go back to the U.N., to water down, to cave into Iran’s demands.
This is not an original thought. For quite some time, former U.N. spokesman Richard Grenell has been warning that this is exactly what is coming down the pike. Last year Grenell wrote: “President Obama’s Geneva proposal to the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council allowing Iran to enrich some uranium violates previous UN resolutions demanding the Islamic Republic stop ‘all’ uranium enrichment activity. To avoid a violation of current UN resolutions, the permanent members must ask the entire Security Council to vote to weaken and supersede their previous demands.” He continued, “The UN’s four rounds of hard-fought sanctions on Iran and several other resolutions demanding compliance call for a full suspension of all enrichment activities, including research and development, then full verification of that suspension before negotiations on a permanent diplomatic solution begin. The sequencing was strategic. It was designed to build international confidence in a secretive country’s deceitful past.” But Obama deliberately departed from these restrictions, so he has always planned to go back. Otherwise, his deal would be in violation of existing international law.
That brings us to U.S. law. The U.N. resolutions don’t automatically become law, the administration was forced to concede. But under current U.S. sanctions law, the president can waive them. And that is just what Obama intends to do. He will get the U.N. to water down international sanctions while he suspends U.S. sanctions. Why is this so dangerous? Mark Dubowitz, whose research and expertise helped lawmakers to construct the sanctions legislation, e-mails me:
President Obama risks undermining the entire sanctions edifice on which continued economic leverage depends. A future US president will need this leverage to enforce an Iran deal so that he can respond to Iranian noncompliance without resorting to either military strikes or surrender. But it increasingly appears that UN, EU and perhaps some US sanctions will be suspended and then reimposed or snap backed if Iran cheats. The snapback is a delusion. Reimposing sanctions is harder than it sounds. Amongst the United States, EU and UNSC, there are bound to be significant disputes on the evidence, differing assessments of the seriousness of infractions, fierce debates about the appropriate level of response and concerns about Iranian retaliation.
It’s also important to remember that when sanctions were first implemented, it took years before a critical mass of international companies terminated their business ties with Tehran. Once strictures are loosened, with so many international companies positioning to get back into Iran, it will be very difficult to persuade these companies to leave again. The Iranian regime will also adopt countermeasures to minimize its economic exposure to Western pressure when it anticipates that it will violate any nuclear agreement.
Obama’s legacy becomes demolition of the sanctions regime and an opening for Iran to either make a dash for breakout or to wait 10 years and get its stamped permission slip. The word for this is “containment.” The next president can reverse the waiver, but the Iranian economy will be on the road to recovery and the next president’s options will be severely limited. Iran might even have a bomb by then. As one conservative wag cracked, “If you like your sovereignty you can keep your sovereignty.” Yes, Obama tells us many soothing things but does whatever he wants.
What can Congress do? Well, it can express bipartisan outrage and pass a resolution deploring the president’s end run. But it must do more. Ideally, one would summon a bipartisan veto-proof majority to fix U.S. sanctions in law with no presidential waiver unless a deal meeting the existing U.N. resolutions was agreed upon. (I suppose Congress could use the power of the purse to defund our U.N. contributions, but let’s not get carried away.) But we also have to consider that this might simply be unattainable or susceptible to the argument that Congress can’t constitutionally eliminate all executive discretion. The next best option would be to increase the threshold for waiving existing and new sanctions — in other words, to narrow severely the president’s ability to waive U.S. sanctions, and require officials in the intelligence community and/or the military to add their certification (and thereby put their own credibility on the line as well). For example, U.S. sanctions would not be waived unless and until Iran gave a complete accounting of past nuclear activities and dismantled the Arak facility, things that the Iranians have refused to do and are objective criteria the president and the intelligence community could not honestly certify have occurred.
We have seen this again and again from this president — the complete contempt for coequal branches of government and determination to act in ways contrary to our constitutional structure and overwhelming public opinion (84 percent of Americans don’t favor a 10-year glide path to Iran getting a bomb). In the case of immigration, it took the form of an executive order overriding existing immigration laws under the theory that the president was using “discretion” to delay deportation of certain illegal immigrants. That is now in the courts. But his dual strategy of sabotaging strict U.N. resolutions and waiving U.S. sanctions is far more dangerous and nefarious. It gives primacy to an international body over Congress and the laws of the United States. It assumes sole authority in foreign affairs, something not envisioned in the Constitution, which divides powers between the two branches. Lawmakers have every right to feel as though they were misled and are being entirely marginalized once again.
A senior Republican on Capitol Hill tells me, “Everyone knows, including Democrats, that Obama and [Secretary of State John] Kerry are dangerously close to cutting a bad deal and lifting sanctions and shutting out Congress. If you don’t believe that just ask Democrats privately. They know it.” He remarks, “Instead of talking about that, we have a parade of faux outrage about Republicans and protocol, first the Bibi [Netanyahu] speech and now the letter. Historians will wonder why we did nothing to curb Iranian expansionism or shut down the nuclear program.”
The American people should demand that Congress affix existing sanctions in non-waivable legislation and tighten them as envisioned under the Menendez-Kirk legislation unless the new deal does what the president and the existing U.N. resolutions originally pledged to do — deprive Iran of an enrichment capacity sufficient to make a bomb.
Moreover, voters must demand that 2016 candidates disclose whether they would continue Obama’s explicit appeasement of Iran. Perhaps if Congress acted and 2016 candidates pledge to refuse to carry out this charade, the president would stiffen his spine and use all that as leverage to extract more concessions from Iran. Former Texas governor Rick Perry issued a forceful statement on Thursday. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has also said “Republicans need to ensure that any deal President Obama reaches with Iran receives congressional review. Unless the White House is prepared to submit the Iran deal it negotiates for congressional approval, the next president should not be bound [by] it. I will continue to express that concern publicly to the President and directly to the American people.” Non-candidate Mitt Romney, who garnered respect for having been right on so many Obama foreign policy debacles, reiterates the Israeli prime minister’s message: “Walk away from a Swiss-cheese agreement; institute even more punitive and crippling sanctions than have been imposed; and remove those sanctions only when Iran agrees to dismantle its nuclear enrichment capability and to submit to unrestricted inspections. Finally, if contrary to reason and expectation those sanctions don’t bring Iran to its senses, prepare for a kinetic alternative.” But where are other candidates? Jeb Bush sounded sympathetic about the circumstances giving rise to Sen. Tom Cotton’s letter but refused to say he would not abide by a rotten deal not approved by Congress. His caution conveys weakness. All the top 2016 contenders need to stand up on this one.
If Congress and the 2016 contenders act forcefully, the White House may have to rethink its gambit. If not, the Iranians will know they won’t have a free ride (relief from sanctions) for very long.
There is one more problem for Obama. Our Sunni allies are not dim. They have every reason to be alarmed. They are already taking steps to “to match the nuclear capabilities Iran is allowed to maintain as part of any final agreement reached with world powers. This could include the ability to enrich uranium and to harvest the weapons-grade plutonium discharged in a nuclear reactor’s spent fuel.” An Obama deal of the type described would set off a Middle East arms race. Perhaps Congress should invite the king of Jordan or of Saudi Arabia to speak.
No wonder the White House was infuriated with Cotton: By suggesting there is a flaw in Obama’s scheme to leave out Congress, he made it less likely that the Iranians will be rewarded for their conduct and more likely that the next president would be able to extract concessions from Iran. He shined a light on what the administration was up to and let Democratic colleagues know they were being entirely left out of the loop by the president of their own party. He alerted the public to Obama’s belief that the U.N., not Congress, will be driving the Iran appeasement train. If the result of Cotton’s letter is to cement sanctions in law so that the president cannot waive them in his quest to appease Iran, the senator will be heralded as a heroic defender of the West’s security. If the result is to set the stage for a massive repudiation of Democratic leadership in both the Senate (should Democrats choose to drag their feet on cementing sanctions) and the White House, we can draw some comfort in the prospect of a large GOP majority in both houses and a Republican in the White House. Maybe they will have the gumption to prevent Iran from going nuclear. In any case, the message to Iran should be clear: The president’s shenanigans will not guarantee your quest for nuclear power; the only real insurance that your regime will survive is a binding treaty — and that is not happening unless you comply with existing U.N. resolutions.