About six weeks ago I noted that the Obama administration’s approach to international climate change negotiations could be distilled down into “bypass Congress as much as possible.”  There are understandable reasons for the administration to try this gambit, but it also introduces a greater element of uncertainty about the viability of such negotiations going forward.

If David Sanger’s reporting is correct, then it appears that Obama’s foreign policy team is not limiting this strategy to climate change:

No one knows if the Obama administration will manage in the next five weeks to strike what many in the White House consider the most important foreign policy deal of his presidency: an accord with Iran that would forestall its ability to make a nuclear weapon. But the White House has made one significant decision: If agreement is reached, 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.
But Mr. Obama cannot permanently terminate those sanctions. Only Congress can take that step. And even if Democrats held on to the Senate next month, Mr. Obama’s advisers have concluded they would probably lose such a vote.
“We wouldn’t seek congressional legislation in any comprehensive agreement for years,” one senior official said.

As the Washington Times’s Victor Morton noted in his cut-and-paste-job report on Sanger’s story, this is “another example of the White House bypassing Congress to avoid a vote it would lose.”  And needless to say, such a gambit is agitating members of Congress, colorful conservative pundits, and the state of Israel

The short-term question — as with the climate change negotiations — is whether the “bypass Congress” strategy will affect Iran’s willingness to negotiate. A White House that can’t get Congress to permanently remove sanctions would not appear to have much in the way of negotiating credibility. And as I wrote last week, you can’t just yadda yadda yadda your way out of the domestic politics of these negotiations.

On the other hand, as Sanger notes, it’s not like the Iranian negotiators have that much freedom to maneuver either:

[F]or a deal to be struck with Iran, Mr. Obama must navigate not one negotiation, but three.
The first is between Mr. Obama’s negotiators and the team led by Mohammad Javad Zarif, the savvy Iranian foreign minister. The second is between Mr. Zarif and forces in Tehran that see no advantage in striking a deal, led by many in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and many of the mullahs. The critical player in that effort is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has reissued specific benchmarks for an accord, including Iran’s eventual expansion of its uranium enrichment program by nearly tenfold. And the third is between Mr. Obama and Congress.

There are two other reasons to be moderately more optimistic about the “bypass Congress” option on Iran than climate change. The first is that Iran appears to recognize that it won’t be able to get all of the sanctions lifted in this round of negotiations. This means that there’s less bypassing of Congress anyway.

More importantly, it seems increasingly clear that the negotiation process itself is less than half the game when it comes to this particular interaction. Any deal between Iran and the United States will also require a long, drawn-out process of trust-building on both sides. Even if it appears that Iran is complying with the interim nuclear deal, members of Congress will need to be persuaded that this represents a genuine shift in Iranian policy. So it’s premature for Congress to permanently revoke sanctions anyway. My hunch is that it would take a less hawkish Prime Minister of Israel years of observed and verified Iranian compliance before Congress could be persuaded to authorize a permanent lifting of sanctions.

So this might be a case where political polarization does not get in the way of international negotiations.

That said, if we step back a bit, this is not an encouraging trend for the United States. One of the strengths of the U.S. system of government is that it can offer credible commitments to the rest of the world. Requiring congressional ratification of treaties and other significant international agreements is hard political work — but once ratified, these agreements become the law of the land and difficult to reverse.

As the White House finds ways to cut deals without Congress, it lowers the transaction costs of negotiation in the present. But the credibility of the executive branch’s commitments also get lowered. That’s not a good thing for the future — but short of single-party control of all branches of government, it appears to be the new normal in international negotiations.

Developing… in a mildly disturbing way.