Shadow Government

Going It Alone on Iran

Facing a complex and difficult task in negotiating an agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue, the Obama administration is beginning to leak what many observers have long understood — that it sees no point in trying to obtain Congressional approval for any nuclear deal with Iran. First, it is by no means clear that ...

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Facing a complex and difficult task in negotiating an agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue, the Obama administration is beginning to leak what many observers have long understood — that it sees no point in trying to obtain Congressional approval for any nuclear deal with Iran.

First, it is by no means clear that Iran’s Supreme leader is willing to abandon any nuclear weapons ambitions.  Tehran’s disclosures to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the "possible military dimensions" of its program remain grudging, incomplete, and inaccurate — not behavior indicative of a strategic decision to use nuclear energy solely for peaceful purposes in return for the easing of Iran’s political and economic exile.  This has left the IAEA Director General, Yukya Amano, unable to "conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities."

Second, Congress is deeply skeptical of Tehran’s motivations.  In 2010, Harry Reid’s Senate passed additional sanctions by a vote of 99-0, and the Republican-controlled House is even more suspicious of Iran’s intent.  Seeking Congressional approval for a deal, but failing to get it would be an even more devastating blow to the credibility of American leadership than the Syria red line debacle. 

Third, not all the sanctions on Iran are nuclear-related; some are driven by human rights abuses and support for terrorism.  These issues are not even on the table in the nuclear talks and will not be resolved any time soon. 

The administration argues sensibly that it wants to suspend, not repeal, the sanctions so that it could quickly re-impose penalties if Tehran cheats or halts progress. A presidential waiver of sanctions is therefore preferable to Congressional action.

The president’s decision to go it alone, however, carries risk.  For good or for ill, he will own any agreement completely.  If a deal is reached, 35 years of American foreign policy designed to isolate Iran, will inevitably be reversed, with no enabling legislation by Congress and no supporting consensus required or expected in the foreign policy community.  While the American president has broad Constitutional discretion to make foreign policy, the most effective and enduring decisions have enjoyed bi-partisan support.

American politics can be unpredictable, but we know that in 27 months Barack Obama will no longer be president.  His successor will then be responsible for implementing any agreement with Iran.  Unbound by treaty, or even any implementing legislation, his or her discretion will be nearly absolute. 

This is a fragile foundation for an enduring agreement.  Using executive authority to create proto-treaties in an effort to bind future administrations without the constitutional niceties of treaty ratification rarely ends in joy.  Moreover, even proponents of a deal with Iran acknowledge that it is unlikely to result in a clean break with Tehran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, but rather will merely continue another long, twilight struggle in which Iran seeks to advance its capabilities by means overt and covert, and the United States and its partners seek to suppress that effort.  To succeed, this will require sustained and consistent policy from Washington.

President Obama may believe that wielding his telephone and veto pen are enough to conduct a successful domestic policy (although there is ample reason for doubt), but a strong and successful foreign policy requires bipartisan support.  He must not "bypass" Congress.  Even if he chooses not to seek a Congressional vote on an Iran deal, he will need to make a convincing case to skeptics of both parties that he has addressed their concerns and seeks their support.  He should do this even as negotiations proceed.  If he finds that he is unable to answer their arguments successfully, he should perhaps reconsider his positions.

Former Congressman Lee Hamilton wisely wrote in 2001 that, "Foreign policy always has more force and punch when the nation speaks with one voice. To remain secure, prosperous, and free, the United States must continue to lead. That leadership requires a president and Congress working together to fashion a foreign policy with broad, bipartisan support."

William Tobey is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola