There’s been a fairly furious reaction to the Obama administration’s ongoing negotiations with Iran over nuclear power in some circles. The Republicans are pretty much universally opposed to it and many prominent Democrats, folks like Charles Schumer who are strongly beholden to the Israel lobby, are as well. Rosa Brooks says that the recently announced agreement is “not great, but it’s not chopped liver, either. After a decade of impasse and insults on both sides, it’s a small but genuine breakthrough.” And she looks at the question of whether Congress could block it from going through:
But that depends on President Obama’s willingness to stand firm in the face of congressional bluster.
There’s no shortage of that bluster: So far, Congress has shown a distinct bipartisan disinclination to engage in reality-based thinking. Sen. Bob Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, complains that the Geneva deal “did not proportionately reduce Iran’s nuclear program.” Sen. John McCain has called the deal a “dangerous step that degrades our pressure on the Iranian regime.” Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, objects that the deal does not “require Iran to completely halt its enrichment efforts or dismantle its centrifuges.” Sen. Marco Rubio agrees, insisting that there should be no sanctions relief until “Iran completely abandons its enrichment and reprocessing capabilities.”
Rainbows and unicorns, guys.
Short of all-out war, the Obama administration — and the rest of the international community — has essentially zero ability to force Iran to abandon its nuclear program completely. We’ve tried, remember? As I wrote on Nov. 21, for two decades, we’ve threatened, we’ve blustered, and we’ve piled sanctions on top of sanctions. And for two decades, Iran has continued to advance its nuclear program. We can keep up the sanctions for the next two decades, but we’re likely to get an even angrier, more desperate Iran that would still continue to build up its nuclear program…
Congressional hawks should stop bloviating and help the president make this deal work. It’s funny: Just a few months ago, many of the very same hawkish legislators who are now threatening to destroy the Iran deal by imposing new sanctions were insisting on the importance of executive-legislative unity when bargaining with adversarial foreign states. Remember Syria? When President Obama declared his intention to ask Congress to authorize military action against President Bashar al-Assad, Sen. McCain declared, “A vote against that resolution by Congress I think would be catastrophic. It would undermine the credibility of the United States of America and the president of the United States. None of us want that.”
If “none of us want that,” it’s hard to see why it’s important for Congress to back the president when it comes to threats to use military force, but fine for Congress to undermine the president when he tries to use diplomacy so we can avoid resorting to military force.
President Obama needs to make it clear that it’s his job, not Congress’s, to broker deals with foreign powers. That’s not just a policy preference: It’s the way the U.S. Constitution divvies up authority between the executive and legislative branches. As the Supreme Court declared in U.S. v Curtiss Wright, the president “alone negotiates: Into the field of negotiation, the Senate cannot intrude; and Congress itself is powerless to invade it.”
In fact, it’s an open constitutional question whether Congress can impose mandatory sanctions on a foreign state over the president’s strong objection. Congress has the power to regulate foreign commerce, but the president is vested with executive power and is the sole representative of the United States vis-a-vis foreign states. Just as the congressional power to declare war does not prevent the president from using military force in what he views as emergencies — whether Congress likes it or not — the congressional power to regulate foreign commerce can’t force the president to implement sanctions that would undermine a time-sensitive executive agreement if doing so, in the president’s view, would jeopardize vital national-security interests.
Any congressional efforts to completely eliminate the president’s foreign-affairs discretion could lead to a constitutional showdown, which Congress would almost certainly lose. If Congress passed new sanctions legislation that the president believed would undermine the deal with Iran, he could veto it; if Congress mustered up the two-thirds majority needed to overcome a veto, the president could simply refuse to implement the sanctions. The courts would be unlikely to side with Congress because, traditionally, they have viewed such disputes as “political questions” best resolved through the ballot box.
I’ll be interested to see how far some members of Congress want to push their opposition. It really comes down to the Democrats. The Republicans can scream and holler all they want, but Schumer is powerful and from Obama’s own party. Would Harry Reid allow a vote on a bill maintaining the sanctions, or even on a resolution urging a stronger position? Time will tell.