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Four Ways Congress Can Improve the Iran Nuclear Deal

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"The last thing the United States needs is 535 legislators micromanaging its Iran policy. But having worked at the State Department for more than two decades, I know I don’t want Foggy Bottom controlling a 10- to 15-year deal with Iran. Here are four ways Congress could play a credible role on the Iran deal," writes Aaron David Miller

The last thing the United States needs is 535 legislators micromanaging its Iran policy. But having worked at the State Department for more than two decades, I know I don’t want Foggy Bottom controlling a 10- to 15-year deal with Iran. Here are four ways Congress could play a credible role on the Iran deal.

Keeping negotiators honest: Negotiators get attached to their deliberations and can fall in love with the process. It is sometimes difficult to maintain perspective when the overriding objective is to reach a deal, particularly when the stakes are so high. To be clear: It’s not that Team Kerry would prefer a bad deal to no deal, but the pressure when trying to reach an accord invariably causes negotiators to try to solve problems, not to create them. This can easily lead to making unwise compromises on a single issue for the good of reaching the overall agreement. It is critical that there be some kind of oversight and transparency before a deal is concluded with Iran. Those checks must be done by a party that isn’t so invested in the negotiations. In this situation, Congress–despite too much partisanship there–is the only side that can play that role.

Keeping the Iranians honest: Once talks begin, negotiators often quickly accept the idea that both sides have legitimate needs and interests that must be reconciled. This isn’t quite true when it comes to the nuclear issue. Iran’s nuclear program violates at least six U.N. Security Council resolutions; Tehran has cheated before; and the Iranians shouldn’t be trying to militarize what is supposed to be a civilian nuclear program. We are dealing with a repressive regime that supports terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and has a vision for the Middle East at odds with the United States’ vision and values. For its part, Iran needs to understand that dealing with the U.S. doesn’t mean negotiating with only the administration; that Congress has a stake in protecting U.S. interests and values; and that Tehran’s egregious behavior–even more than partisan U.S. politics–is what has warranted congressional involvement and concern. Iran simply can’t be trusted.

Leverage over time: Should an agreement be reached, it will extend into the term of the next U.S. president and possibly the one after that. And even if everything about this deal works out, it’s unlikely that the current Republican-controlled Congress would agree to lift the oil and banking sanctions imposed on Iran in 2010. That alone gives Congress a role in this enterprise beyond 2016. Factor in legitimate concerns about Tehran’s involvement in terrorism and the three-month compliance reports the Obama administration will be obligated to provide to Congress confirming that Iran is abiding by the agreement’s terms, and the Hill’s role in implementation is likely to continue in some fashion. And that’s a good thing. In the end, only Congress will determine whether its sanctions are lifted permanently. Regardless of whether there is a Democratic or Republican majority, permanent sanctions relief is likely only if there is real change in Iran’s repressive and expansionist regime.

Toughening the costs for cheating: Ideally, the administration and Congress would be allies, as opposed to effective adversaries, particularly when it comes to imposing clear limits and consequences for violations of the agreement. Two U.S. branches working together could create coherence in U.S. policy and add credibility to potential U.S. responses–including military action–in the event of Iranian transgressions.

The administration doesn’t gain by resisting or resenting congressional  input. The White House should welcome legislators’ help. Barack Obama is matched against a formidable, and rising, Iran. The goal of all U.S. sides should be a nuclear agreement that constrains the mullahs’ power, not enhances it.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal

About the Author

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Aaron David Miller

Global Fellow
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more