Congress Waking Up to Iran Deal Mistake

Congress has begun drafting and considering the Iran Policy Oversight Act of 2015, designed to impose the teeth that the President’s Iran deal lacks.  The proposed law comes in the wake of repeated Iranian provocations since the deal was ‘deemed passed’ by the administration, including a surface-to-air missile demonstration held at a suspect heavy water nuclear site. Rebeccah Heinrichs of the Hudson Institute argues that the regular provocations are intended by Iran to show its independence from international norms.  Rather than being brought into the international community as the President intends, Iran means to remain a defiant, provocative regional power.

The moves have been clear enough that even original supporters of the deal in Congress have migrated to supporting the Iran Policy Oversight Act.  The bill is presented as being a clarification of the President’s agreement — an agreement that Congress never voted to ratify — inserting the language that the State Department should have negotiated into American law.  For example, on the question of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU), the law would say:

Iran does not have an inherent right to uranium enrichment and is not permitted to accumulate highly enriched uranium, pursuant to its enduring international obligations, beyond what is consistent with peaceful civilian applications, and as such it is the policy of the United States that all of the options available to the United States, including the military option, remain available to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability.

There is a real question about why clear language about when we might use our military option is absent from the deal.  One possibility is that the UN Security Council ruling may have eliminated the American military option as a matter of international law.  Of course, the United States is just as free to violate UN Security Council rulings as Iran is, and Iran is violating this one already.  Nevertheless, the United States does not have the history of habitual violations of Security Council resolutions that Iran does.  Further, the President wants to be handcuffed in this way.  At least until 2017, it is likely that the President would argue that compliance with the UN Security Council ruling requires us to obtain permission from the UN Security Council before taking any military action against Iran.

There is a similar issue with sanctions.  Congress has been asking the administration since before the deal was finalized about drafting legislation designed to support the so-called “snapback sanctions” that are allegedly going to be in place.  The administration has asked them not to do so, and the UN Security Council resolution appears to demand that US Presidents as signatories to the agreement do their best to discourage Congress from imposing new sanctions laws.  Presumably that could go as far as veto threats for legislation that does impose new sanctions laws.  The Iran Policy Oversight Act does finally consider a legal basis for sanctions on Iran that would ‘snap’ in the event of certain kinds of violations of the deal.  The bill states that “nothing in the JCPOA limits or curtails the ability of Congress to pass sanctions legislation to address” sanctions pointed at Iran’s missile activities, state support of terrorism, or other non-nuclear activities like human rights abuses.  The bill would also declare a “sense of the Congress” that all existing sanctions — including the nuclear sanctions — shall continue to exist for the lifetime of the JCPOA should they need to be re-imposed due to violations of the deal by Iran.

In addition to this law, Senator Robert Menendez (D., NJ) — a long time opponent of the deal — is pushing the US State Department to tighten existing sanctions against Iran because of its violation of the missile language.  “The Iranian regime is drawing a line in the sand that demonstrates with malice that it will only selectively meet its obligations with respect to internationally sanctioned weapons programs,” he wrote in a letter addressed to US Secretary of State John F. Kerry. “I write to recommend to you that you use the Administration’s discretionary authority to tighten the full range of sanctions available to you to penalize Iran.”  Kerry has not responded.

An obvious additional deterrent would be a strong American military, but the Congress has other priorities.  It still intends to cut military spending by as much as a trillion dollars under sequestration.  Though Iran is racing to modernize its weapons, especially its missile systems, American forces who are not withdrawing from the region will be forced to use older systems that have already seen much wear and tear in a decade of war.