Deal or no deal? Congress really must choose

The nuclear agreement reached last week by the P5+1 and Iran is prompting a mix of reactions. Some love it. Some hate it. Some see it has having sufficient benefits so as to overcome the long-run risk of a substantial Iranian nuclear program or Iranian activities in the region.

While in Washington last week, I heard a curious middle position: that the deal itself is insufficient and should be rejected now, but in furtherance of a better deal down the road. The theory is that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) could be rejected but that Iran would not expand its nuclear program anyway, in order to avoid the expansion of U.S. sanctions.

This is not possible. If the United States rejects the deal now, it will not be possible to negotiate a new one, and certainly not before Iran undertakes a potentially dramatic expansion of its nuclear program. This is both because of the politics associated with doing so within Iran — if the United States is not going to fulfill this deal, what is to say they would fulfill a future one? — and because the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), the interim deal that has been in place since November 2013, would collapse at the same time as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Some argue that Iran could continue to observe its JPOA commitments and so could the United States by not imposing new sanctions. However, U.S. law now makes that impossible. Under the terms of the legislation authorizing congressional review of the deal, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), if a joint resolution of disapproval is passed by Congress, the interim accord can no longer be observed by the United States as a legal matter. This law states that the President is no longer permitted to provide relief from sanctions established by Congressional action. So waivers could not be extended under the statutory authorities in place.

For this reason, the executive branch would have to restart efforts to reduce Iranian oil exports— paused under the JPOA— by imposing sanctions for the movement of Central Bank of Iran funds. Even if Iran wished to keep the JPOA afloat, it is inconceivable that Iran would accept renewed U.S. efforts to reduce Iran’s oil exports without resuming those aspects of its nuclear program that were paused or limited by the interim agreement.  The United States would be blamed for this.

Would international partners join us in this effort? Highly doubtful. And, as such, the United States would be brought into confrontation with key trading partners.

So, Congress must make the choice that it asserted was essential in the passage of INARA and decide if the alternative to the final deal is worth it. Leadership and vision from Congress, as the president has shown in pursuing this deal, is now needed.