Report: Congress’s Role in Implementing a Nuclear Deal

February 12, 2015

If the world’s six major powers and Iran agree on a nuclear deal, Congress could take a wide range of actions affecting implementation, according to a new report by the Rand Corporation. “On one end of the spectrum, lawmakers could support a deal’s implementation by removing statutory sanctions; on the other, it could withhold funds needed to execute the deal or nullify it through legislation,” posits Larry Hanuer. But he notes that Congress is more likely to take a “middle-of-the-road approach” that would enable the Obama administration to provide enough sanctions relief to secure an agreement. Alternatively, Partisan gridlock could also prevent Congress from passing legislation that could affect the deal’s implementation. The following are excerpts from the report by Hanauer.

Continuum of Potential Actions
In considering what Congress might do to affect the implementation of a nuclear deal, it is important to consider the full spectrum of options available to it (illustrated in figure 1). Congress could facilitate an agreement’s implementation with funding and statutory authorities to implement U.S. commitments. Conversely, it could complicate implementation by blocking funds or it could nullify a deal by passing a joint resolution of disapproval. There are a range of steps in between these extremes— including taking no legislative action at all, which would allow the executive branch to act within the bounds of its existing authorities; reinstating some of the sanctions that the administration offered to relieve; or passing additional or strengthened sanctions in an attempt to increase the pressure on Tehran.
Congress could also pass a legislative authorization to use military force (AUMF) if Iran fails to follow through on its commitments, either as a stand-alone measure or as part of other legislative efforts along the spectrum. The impact of an AUMF could vary, depending on Congress’s intent and the context in which force is authorized. It could make the consequences of noncompliance clear to the Iranian government and thereby encourage Tehran to fulfill its commitments, or it could lead Iran, the European Union, and others to view Washington as seeking to derail an already agreed-to diplomatic settlement, thereby potentially scuttling a deal and isolating the United States from its allies on the Iran nuclear issue.
Although a wide range of factors will affect the actions Congress might take, the most probable courses of action fall in the middle of the spectrum. For reasons discussed in detail later, Congress is also unlikely to lift sanctions through statute (Option 1) or explicitly appropriate funds for the implementation of an agreement (Option 2)—at least not until Iran has demonstrated a track record of compliance with a negotiated agreement. Similarly, Congress is unlikely to limit the White House’s ability to waive sanctions, which would constrain but not prohibit the executive branch from offering economic relief to Iran (Option 4) because placing limits on the president’s waiver authority would not have much of an impact on the executive branch’s ability to provide sanctions relief and is therefore not likely to be acceptable either to members who want to support the president or to members who oppose an agreement. Finally, Congress is unlikely to block implementation of a deal by withholding funds (Option 7) or voting to disapprove a deal (Option 8), primarily because scuttling an agreed-upon settlement would make the United States appear to be the deal’s spoiler, which could lead to resumed Iranian high-level enrichment, increased U.S. isolation, and the weakening of the international sanctions regime. Congress is also unlikely to authorize the use of military force unless Iran has already demonstrated that it has failed to execute the agreement in good faith.
Congress is most likely to take one of three broad courses of action in the middle of the spectrum, depicted as Options 3, 5, and 6 in Figure 1:
3. Taking no legislative action at all, which would enable the executive branch to implement an agreement unimpeded.
5. Passing legislation that reinstates sanctions previously waived by the White House.
6. Passing legislation that adds to or strengthens the terms of existing sanctions.
Political gridlock makes it highly likely that Congress will be unable to take any legislative action at all (Option 3). If Congress decides to strengthen (or reinstate) the sanctions regime (Options 5 and 6), it will likely seek to do so only if Iran fails to follow through on the deal, which would enable the United States to place the blame for new sanctions on Iranian noncompliance; imposing sanctions unilaterally would make the United States appear to have undermined the deal, leading to unpalatable consequences similar to if Congress were to block the implementation of a deal entirely. All of these courses of action would enable the White House to implement a deal that offers sanctions relief through existing executive branch authorities.
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