The Buzz

Congress Not Required: Here's How to Make an Iran Deal Stick

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed the SALT II arms-limitation agreement with his Soviet counterpart Leonid Brezhnev. Owing to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan later that year, the treaty was never ratified by the U.S. senate. Even so, the provisions laid out in SALT II were respected by Carter and by his successor Ronald Reagan. The episode thus gives some insight into how and why any possible deal with Iran might be allowed to succeed, despite congressional antipathy towards its contents.

The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks represented a high-water mark for détente, the Nixon-Kissinger strategy of easing tensions with the Soviet Union in order to allow for the pursuit of mutually beneficial cooperation between the superpowers. During the late 1960s and 1970s, it was assumed that both the United States and the Soviet Union had a self-interest in halting the costly nuclear arms race between them. Although this assumption was broadly accurate, negotiations on strategic arms control proved to be extremely torturous to conclude—not least of all because of domestic opposition within both countries (in the United States, for example, right-wing hawks regarded compromise with the Soviet Union as dangerously naïve, while many on the left believed that arms control was inimical to the ultimate goal of nuclear disarmament).

Nixon initiated the SALT process in 1969; all told, it took a decade to complete and resulted in two sets of agreements. SALT I was signed and ratified in 1972, comprising an anti-ballistic missile treaty and an interim agreement to freeze numbers of nuclear weapons possessed by each side. Discussions on SALT II would continue long after Nixon left office: although Gerald Ford came close to bringing the talks to fruition at Vladivostok in 1974, it would be five more years until the terms of SALT II were finalized by Carter and Brezhnev. The agreement represented the first-ever superpower compact to scale back aspects of their nuclear-weapons arsenals.

With Soviet tanks rolling across the border into Afghanistan, however, the Carter administration asked members of the senate to hold off with ratification. This was hardly the time for the White House to be seen entering into an historic arms-control agreement with Moscow. Furthermore, with the idea of détente comprehensively discredited by a clear instance of Soviet aggression, SALT II might easily have been defeated, had senators been allowed to vote on ratification. Counterintuitively, in fact, Carter’s decision not to ask for ratification of SALT II actually kept hopes alive that the terms of the agreement would be implemented.

Despite the war in Afghanistan, both Carter and the Soviet leadership realized that adherence to SALT II remained in the self-interest of both countries. Renewing the nuclear arms race served the cause of neither side. Even the famously hawkish Reagan administration, which made no secret of its abhorrence for détente, refrained from abrogating the terms of SALT II—even though there were no international or domestic legal obligations to do so. This voluntary acquiescence in arms control incensed GOP lawmakers like Jesse Helms, John East and Steve Symms, who regarded abidance by SALT II as a serious abdication of the president’s responsibility to prioritize the national interest over inoperative international agreements.

The same logic that kept SALT II relevant, despite its nonratification, offers an important lifeline for President Obama’s deeply unpopular (even if still unfinished!) deal with Iran. SALT II was what political scientists call a self-enforcing agreement—that is, an arrangement that all parties have a rational self-interest in adhering to (at least for as long as they can expect reciprocity). If Obama’s deal with Iran is structured to be similarly self-enforcing—if it is carefully arranged such that neither the United States, nor Iran stands to benefit from abrogating the agreement—then it has every chance of having tangible and lasting effects, whether or not Congress gives the deal its blessing.

Certain caveats are in order, of course. Namely, it is undeniable that bipartisan support for a deal in Congress would make it much easier for any U.S. president to convey strategic resolve to the Iranians. Conversely, if lawmakers are absolutely bent on spoiling an agreement with Iran, then it is possible that they will find ways to do so.

But the point remains: if the bargain concocted in Lausanne turns out to be truly in the self-interest of both the United States and Iran—that is, if the deal makes both countries better off than they would be absent any agreement—then logic and history would suggest that the initiative will have a chance of success. Most indications are that the two governments do possess strong incentives to make a deal work. Structuring the terms of the deal to be truly self-enforcing over the long term, though, will be no mean feat.