This Is What Will Happen if Congress Blows Up the Iran Nuclear Deal

If the naysayers manage to blow up the newly minted agreement, it will be a disaster for the United States — and will only push Iran closer to the bomb.

By Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of PEN America.

By most accounts, the fevered debate in Washington over the Iran deal is little more than a ritual game. Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail are railing against the pact, which makes for a politically simpler target than either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton — for the moment. Bent on getting their criticisms onto the record during last week’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the proposed agreement, Republican senators barely paused to listen to Secretary of State John Kerry, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) intoned that the deal would make it “the policy of the United States to enable a state sponsor of terror to obtain an industrialized nuclear development program that has, as we know, only one real need.” Earlier this week, the scene was reprised in the House of Representatives, with the three secretaries pleading their case and Committee Chair Ed Royce (R-Calif.) decrying the deal as offering Iran “a lighted path toward nuclear weapons.”

Yet for all the vivid rhetoric, the deal’s crusading opponents are unlikely to muster the votes of the 13 Senate and 44 House Democrats that, assuming a solid Republican front, would be required to override a promised presidential veto of a bill that would prevent the lifting of U.S. sanctions and thereby kill the deal. While Democrats, including Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), have voiced criticism of the pact, the longest serving Jewish member of the House of Representatives, Michigan’s Sander Levin, came out in support of the deal on Tuesday — a move expected to catalyze other backers to step forward. While most believe the president will hold onto the Democratic votes he needs to sustain a veto and save the deal, nothing is certain. In the meantime, deal opponents seem to be operating secure in the knowledge that they can grandstand all they want, with little risk of actually killing the deal and being blamed for the consequences.

To the extent that the campaign against the agreement goes beyond posturing, though, and aims to actually muster the votes to defeat the agreement, the effort risks doing enduring damage, not just to the drive to defeat Iran’s nuclear program but also to U.S. strategic interests and power writ large. While the administration has rightly focused its case to Congress tightly on the effects of the congressional vote for Iran’s nuclear program, the implications of achieving a veto-proof majority opposed to the deal will reverberate far more widely. Though the prospect may seem relatively remote, the ripple effects of the deal’s defeat — not just for America’s national security, but also its global diplomatic and political clout — are grave enough that they should be weighed by every member of Congress before they cast this historic vote.

The security consequences — both nuclear and conventional, for the United States and the world — of whether the deal lives or dies are the most obvious and have been the subject of robust debate. And critics have reasonably flagged some concerns. Some leading nuclear security experts including Olli Heinonen, former deputy director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and former American weapons inspector David Albright have pointed out the deal’s flaws: a prolonged waiting period before inspectors can enter suspicious sites and the failure to compel full transparency on past nuclear activity. It is also true that an end to sanctions will fill Iranian coffers with more than $100 billion, some of which will likely be used for a variety of nefarious purposes, including funding terrorism and regional proxy wars.

With this deal having been inked and signed, however, it’s hard to see how congressional defeat doesn’t make the threats posed by the deal’s flaws even more imminent than they are now. In his Senate testimony on July 23, Kerry claimed it was a choice between “this deal or war” — a juxtaposition for which he was accused of hyperbole. Kerry dismissed the prospect that another, stronger deal could theoretically have been struck as “some sort of unicorn arrangement involving Iran’s complete capitulation. That’s a fantasy, plain and simple.”

Iran’s leaders, for their part, have already made clear that the failure of a deal will redouble their commitment to their nuclear ambitions. As Kerry noted in his testimony, the pace of enrichment will quicken, and new reactors and centrifuges will be built. Instead of an admittedly overlong 24-day waiting period for inspections, there will be no inspections at all. In fact, inspections would be pointless because there will be no doubt of what Iran is doing and no way to stop them short of military action, a course that many experts say simply won’t work. Transparency on the past would also be a non-starter without the deal.

In terms of the cash bonanza Iran will enjoy once sanctions are lifted, at this point that check is headed toward the mail. The European Union has already begun the process of suspending its sanctions on Iran, and the U.N. Security Council likewise wasted no time in passing a resolution for sanctions relief, though it delayed implementation for 90 days. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius arrived in Tehran on Wednesday, warming the seats for French businesspeople and investors. U.S. officials have made clear that in the face of congressional rejection of the deal, the international will for tough sanctions will evaporate. While congressional naysayers now trumpet the success of sanctions and demand that they remain in place, experts uniformly affirm that their effectiveness depends on wide multilateral support. The United States has had its own unilateral sanctions in place since 1979 with little discernible impact, but Iran only began to feel the bite once the United States mustered international compliance with sanctions enforced through American banking institutions, and then secured increasingly potent Security Council mandates to create bans on oil, gas, conventional weapons, and other areas that were effective around the world. That multilateral support, in turn, could be summoned only because of Iran’s evasiveness and recalcitrance — qualities in full display during the tenure of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The minute Iran began to shift gears toward a more open and accommodating posture after the 2013 election, those international sanctions began living on borrowed time.

Now that Tehran has spent nearly two years in talks, shown flexibility on various red lines, and invited inspectors back in, the global will to face them down with stiff measures has slackened. If Congress nixes the deal, the international unity that underpinned the measures will disintegrate. Instead of snapping back, the sanctions infrastructure will sag irrevocably under the weight of economic opportunism, frustration with the United States, and pent up demand for Iranian natural gas, arms budgets, and other opportunities. Even if it blocks the nuclear deal, Congress will be unable to stop the feared flow of significant international dollars back to Iran and its various agents and allies.

From a diplomatic and political point of view, the implications of congressional rejection of the deal are at least as dire. While the Obama administration has rightly refused to prognosticate on whether the deal will catalyze or even subtly coax Iran toward a more pro-Western stance, it seems certain that Congress’s rejection of the pact will do the opposite: fueling anti-American sentiment, emboldening hard-liners, and redoubling popular support for a nuclear program as the best defense against an intractable United States. The Iranian dissidents and rights activists who supported the deal, expectant that it might spur political reforms, will see those hopes dashed by the Americans who claim to champion their freedom. Iran will blame Israel and its Gulf neighbors for their role in thwarting the deal, feeding regional tensions already running high.

Picture this year’s opening of the U.N. General Assembly in late September if President Obama’s veto has been overridden. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will come to New York and cast Iran as the valiant, spurned standard-bearer of diplomacy, abandoned by a faithless and feckless United States bent on war. Among the 193 countries in the room, there will be considerable sympathy. Most countries have a love-hate relationship with the world’s longtime superpower. If Washington spurns a compromise in favor of a hostile standoff against a smaller nation, hardened opponents will revile the United States, and America’s friends will struggle to justify its stance. The only thing worse than a nuclear-armed Iran may be a nuclear-armed Iran that can claim the moral high-ground vis-à-vis a United States that turned down a deal the rest of the world — and its own president — thought was fair.

But Iran’s reaction is not the worst of it. Amid rising global powers and shifting geopolitical sands, every major global event of the 21st century operates as a litmus test of U.S. leadership. Media, governments, and citizenries watch to see whether — on Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, Syria, the Islamic State, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Ebola, and so on — the United States measures up to its historic leadership role or falls short. The higher-profile the issue, the more closely watched and consequential the test. If the history of the Iran nuclear deal is that more than two years of U.S.-led multilateral negotiations culminate in a historic agreement only to have Washington fail to deliver on the support of its legislature, killing the deal, and rekindling a nuclear arms race, the damage will be incalculable. Just two years after the president backed off a flagging effort to muster congressional support to defend his red line against the use of chemical weapons in Syria, it will be cast as another example of United States being unable to pull itself together to follow through on the promise of leadership in a volatile region.

For the nations who have negotiated round-the-clock alongside the United States, the first reaction to legislative rebuke will likely be intense embarrassment for President Obama, Secretary Kerry, and the entire team that is left stumbling as the rug is pulled out from under their signature initiative. But that initial burst of empathy will dissipate fast and on its heels will come anger at the years of wasted effort, the squandered potential of an agreement that all these countries had signed onto, and the disrespect shown to allies and partners who participated in the talks in good faith, thinking a deal was a deal.

From there on, the reactions will split. In the case of America’s European allies, the early shock will be replaced by an intense anxiety born of recognition that the United States can no longer be counted on to lead and convene reliably in response to pressing global threats. With the continent’s own political cohesion being sorely tested, the crumbling of U.S. resolve for the deal will be all the more unsettling. Whether it drives European countries closer to China, Russia, or isolationism is hard to predict, but it’s hard to see how dissipation of European faith in American leadership is anything but negative. The reaction among farther-flung U.S. allies — Japan, Korea, and partners in Africa — will be similar, fueling insecurity and deepening doubts about Washington’s capacity to lead.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, will take no small measure of grim satisfaction in a congressional “no” vote. His long-term project of joining forces with the likes of Tehran and Beijing to roll back the Western-led, post-World War II global order will be well-served by the specter of a U.S. president paralyzed by his own Congress and Washington walking away from its international leadership role. While the Russians have been instrumental to the deal, an outcome where sanctions crumble, the divide between Tehran and the United States deepens even further, and Washington is the international odd man out would allow Putin to position the defeat as an inflection point in the downfall of American leadership and his own geopolitical trajectory upward. China, likewise, would see a congressional defeat in zero-sum geopolitical terms as a chance to capitalize on Washington’s retreat.

While Congress itself may be insulated from some of this fallout, American emissaries around the world will feel it intensely (which may be one reason why this high-profile group of former diplomats was among the first to come out publicly in favor of the deal). While the deal’s opponents in Washington will cast the defeat of the Iran deal as the fault of President Obama, in the eyes of the rest of the world the deal’s collapse will redound to the United States as a whole. Congressional machinations, pre-election politics, and legislative vote counts will be lost on the foreign public. More than 12 years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the discussion at international strategy conferences and meetings still harkens back, more often than it should, to what are seen as the United States’ arrogance and errors. The rejection of the Iran deal would be a similarly evocative pivotal moment — and one that will take years to live down, no matter who is in the White House. The results will set back U.S. efforts to deter opponents, counter threats, and shape the international response to global challenges.

The Obama administration has good reason to concentrate its case for congressional approval on the merits of the agreement itself, rather than these ancillary effects. It has stuck to that script for the most part, despite Secretary Kerry’s occasional forays off message to, for example, warn of a surge in anti-Israel sentiment should the deal fail. It believes in the terms it has negotiated and is on stronger ground defending them rather than pointing out that Congress has been painted into a corner, where rejection of the White House’s agreement would deal a body blow to the United States’ international credibility. It’s also true, though, that the painting happened mostly at Congress’s own hand: Near-unanimous passage of the April Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act ensured that Congress would get to review the deal before it went into effect, but delayed that review until negotiations were concluded, requiring a binary up-or-down vote on the handiwork of the White House and five other major powers. In passing that act, Congress ceded its power to line-edit the deal or do anything other than comply with or reject it.

As the 60-day deadline nears, with tens of millions of dollars being spent on campaigning by the deal’s opponents, some in Congress may be tempted to pull out all the stops to build Democratic support and deal President Obama a veto-proof blow. The notion that potential reaction to U.S. decisions abroad — be it from U.S. allies in Europe, Russia, China, or Iran itself — should circumscribe congressional decision-making has never sat well on Capitol Hill. The Iran deal’s congressional opponents will argue that international attitudes and diplomatic ripple effects should not color decision-making on a vital question of U.S. national security. But among the most essential assets to U.S. national security is America’s status as a trusted leader whose actions and decisions are respected — and even at times feared. If Washington unravels the nuclear deal, that credibility will be tarnished. While overturning the president’s veto might feel like decisive leadership in Washington this fall, its consequences could yield a decisive blow to American global leadership for years to come.

Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America. She was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department. Twitter: @SuzanneNossel