How Congress Should Really Evaluate an Iran Nuclear Deal

Congress should explore fundamental issues and assumptions underlying U.S. policy toward Iran.

Iranian and Western negotiators in Vienna may or may not reach a final accord by June 30, exchanging sanctions relief for limitations on Iran’s nuclear program, and there is talk of another extension. Congress will have one month—two if an accord is reached during the summer recess—to approve or disapprove the deal. While recent statements by Iranian officials including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have raised doubts about how close the parties are to agreement, negotiations continue; and should an agreement emerge, Congress will face enormous pressures to endorse it.

From the outset, the Obama administration has briefed oversight committees but excluded Congress from its deliberative process, and few details from the negotiating table have been leaked. This has fed sentiment on Capitol Hill to increase sanctions pressure, and raised political resistance to an accord with Iran. Despite their misgivings, legislators and staff will be at a disadvantage in disputing the judgment of Secretary of Energy (and MIT nuclear physicist) Ernest Moniz about the adequacy of verification modalities and the estimated warning time to detect an Iranian nuclear weapons “breakout.” Congress, moreover, will face a stark choice: either endorse the negotiated terms, or be blamed for jettisoning the only available nuclear restraints on Iran while releasing the other P5+1 countries to lift their own sanctions.

There are three possible outcomes: 1) talks could end with no agreement; 2) an agreement may be reached and accepted by Congress; or 3) an agreement may be reached and rejected by Congress. In any of these scenarios, Congress will be keen to exercise its oversight function after having been largely sidelined during two years of talks. Perhaps predictably, some Members of Congress have advocated treating an agreement with Iran as an executive branch policy that will not outlast the Obama presidency, rather than as a U.S. commitment.

A more productive path for Congress may be to broaden the scope of its inquiry into the Iran negotiations, and explore some fundamental issues and assumptions underlying U.S. policy toward Iran that will remain relevant whatever the outcome of negotiations, and arguably more so in the aftermath.

For starters, the Obama administration should be asked to articulate its understanding of how policy is determined in Iran. Since his election as Iran’s President in June 2013, Hassan Rouhani has been portrayed as a “moderate” and proponent of reform. The White House touted President Obama’s September 2013 phone call to Mr. Rouhani as an historic conversation between the two “counterparts” after decades of bilateral estrangement. Washington’s Iran-watchers have devoted far more “ink” to Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, including their English-language tweets and YouTube video messages, than to other figures including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his key regime lieutenants.

Congress should ask the administration to explain what power, authority or influence it believes the Iranian President exercises over the country’s affairs, including but not limited to the nuclear establishment. Is President Rouhani the chief executive setting policies and overseeing day-to-day stewardship over Iran’s economic assets, foreign activities, justice and law enforcement, control of the information domain and the like? And if major aspects of Tehran’s exercise of power are not under Rouhani’s purview, including activities hostile to United States and international interests, what have been the policy responses from the Obama administration since 2013, and what is the strategy going forward?

A second set of questions concerns economics and finance. The received wisdom in Washington is that Iran entered negotiations with the West because the pressure of economic sanctions had brought the country “to its knees.” No doubt declining oil and gas revenues, a weakened currency and interdiction of Tehran’s ability to conduct international financial transactions increased hardship for the people of Iran. The question for Congress is what effect this has had on the regime’s behavior.

The administration should be asked to explain what economic resources are under the direct control of Iran’s leadership and where that money has been going. Congress should know whether, if at all, existing sanctions have constricted Iran’s appetite for investment in its nuclear program, to say nothing of the considerable financial and weapons support it has been providing its allies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Gaza. As Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have long profited from smuggling operations enabled by the scarcity of goods caused by sanctions, it is appropriate for Congress to examine whether sanctions are indeed an effective lever on the Iranian regime’s behavior.