Can Congress Get a Better Deal With Iran?
Is there any precedent for the US government dropping a controversial nuclear agreement so that it can obtain a better deal? Is such a goal realistic? The answer to these questions is yes. This exact scenario once occurred, only it did not involve Iran, but rather the Soviet Union.
In 1979, the Carter administration had been negotiating a new arms control agreement with the Soviet Union, that was known as SALT-2. The SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) agreements did not seek to reduce the nuclear arsenals of the two superpowers, but only to place a ceiling on the extent of their future buildup of intercontinental weapons systems.
A huge campaign was waged against SALT-2 in which experts warned that because of the asymmetries between the force structures of the US and the USSR, SALT-2 would create an unstable nuclear balance and might leave Moscow with a first-strike option. In the meantime, the Soviets were intensifying their efforts to send proxy forces and advisers to Angola, the Horn of Africa and finally they themselves invaded Afghanistan.
Many commentators in Israel, including members of the Knesset, underestimate the importance of Congress when there is a debate on US foreign policy. They are unfamiliar with the separation of powers between the three branches of the US government in the US Constitution. They don’t know, for example, that it was Congress that ended the Vietnam War by cutting off funding to the Pentagon. It was Congress that prohibited the use of federal appropriations to support the war of the Contras in Nicaragua. The president is unquestionably the commander-in-chief, but he requires the approval of Congress to wage wars, that are not limited conflicts, and to fund them.
Equally many commentators don’t understand that according to the US Constitution, major international treaties require any administration to seek “the advise and consent” of the Senate by a two thirds majority of the senators present (ambassadors are appointed by the president, but require the approval of a simple majority in the Senate).
The Senate has used these constitutional powers in order to obtain the modification of treaties brought before it. According to this process, the Senate itself does not by itself modify treaties that were negotiated by the president. But it can state that its consent to a treaty is conditional upon a change being made in the agreement, requiring the president to re-negotiate its terms. Alternatively, the Senate might insist that the president state that the US has specific reservations. After the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson’s administration was involved in the negotiations over the Versailles Treaty. But in 1919 he could not obtain Senate approval unless its reservations were addressed. As a result, the US stayed outside of the League of Nations.
Thus Congress has been directly involved in the ratification of treaties. In the case of SALT-2, the Carter administration realized that it could not get the backing of two thirds of the Senate at that time. It did not even bother to bring SALT-2 for a Senate vote that it understood it would lose. In accordance with its constitutional responsibilities, the role Congress filled was to force the executive branch of the US government to reconsider the SALT-2 Treaty and to obtain a better deal.
Carter did not have enough time left in his term in office to deliver a better agreement. That task was left to his successor, President Ronald Reagan, who withdrew the SALT-2 Treaty from the Senate proposed an alternative approach in 1982. The Reagan administration came up with a very different strategic concept: rather than put a limit on the size of the military buildup of both sides, the new administration proposed that both sides actually reduce their nuclear arsenals.
Few believed that Moscow would ever accept such a fundamental change, after a signed agreement was rejected by the United States. But persistent American diplomacy succeeded in changing the terms of US-Soviet negotiations. Reagan’s approach led to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty or START, which may have been a very difficult and long negotiation but was eventually signed in 1991, by Reagan’s successor, President George H.W. Bush.
The Obama administration has until June 30 to take the declaration of principles, just reached, and turn it in a detailed final agreement. This final agreement, that will negotiated between the US, its P5+1 partners, and Iran is different from the SALT-2 case. For example, the Obama administration can argue that formally the deal that will be reached with Iran is not a “treaty” but only a less-important “executive agreement,” not requiring Congressional approval.
But Congress is already indicating that it refuses to accept this technical argument and abandon its traditional role of reviewing international agreements. Thus, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), has drafted legislation (the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015) requiring President Obama to submit a final agreement with Iran to both houses of Congress within five days of it being signed. Corker’s bill gives a role to the House of Representatives, as well, and not only the Senate. Corker does not deal with the legal definition of the future agreement. He wants Congressional oversight regardless of what it is called.
According to Corker’s bill, for 60 days, while both houses of Congress review the agreement, the president is prohibited from canceling or even suspending sanctions on Iran that the Congress imposed in the past. Corker’s legislation was co-sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans. In case President Obama vetoes the Corker bill, a special two thirds majority of sixty seven senators would be needed to override it. That would require thirteen Democrats to cross over and join the Republican majority on this vote. Corker now has between sixty-four and sixty-six votes locked in. This past week, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York) made it known that he would back Corker’s efforts. His voice is particularly significant since he is expected to become the next Senate minority leader, after the retirement of Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada). The Foreign Relations Committee must first vote on Corker’s bill. It is scheduled to vote on the legislation on Tuesday, April 14.
There are multiple reasons why serious questions have to be raised about the new Iran understandings. There appear to be wide discrepancies between the Iranian and American versions of what exactly they agreed. Just this week, the semi-official FARS News Agencies reported that according to a briefing by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Tehran will begin using its advanced IR-8 centrifuges, that operate 20 times faster than the current IR-1 centrifuges, when Iran’s new deal with the West goes into effect. Corker himself has raised a number of “red flags” that stand out with the framework that was just reached:1.) when exactly will the sanctions on Iran will be removed — immediately, as Tehran says or in a phased manner as Washington argues, 2.) what kind of snap inspections will be permitted to investigate undeclared sites 3.) what exactly is the nuclear development program, to which Iran agreed 4.) when is Iran going to lay out the past military dimensions of its nuclear program. He also mentioned in an interview with Fox News Sunday that there will be classified annexes to the final agreement that will make an open debate very difficult. Thus, Congress has to come in and deal with these sensitive issues which could well be hidden from the public.
Undoubtedly, the US president is a pivotal figure in the conduct of US foreign policy. Both Israel and the White House need to repair their relationship. But the critical role of Congress should not be ignored. The US Constitution made the two branches of the American government into partners in the formation of US policy toward the world. Israel should not get into the internal debate in Washington over specific legislation like Senator Corker’s bill. That is an internal American matter. But it should voice its view on the West’s agreement with Iran. In any case, Congress will undoubtedly turn to the Israeli leadership and ask its opinion about the reliability of any new agreement in stopping Iran’s march to nuclear weapons. If a bad agreement cannot be stopped and replaced, as was SALT-2, maybe at least it can be fundamentally changed.
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.