Why Won't Obama Work with Bob Corker?

The Tennessee Republican has taken a pragmatic path on the Iran talks. So why won't the administration play ball?

The Obama administration appears to be on the brink of signing a nuclear deal with Iran. If it pulls it off, it’ll be its biggest diplomatic accomplishment in years, one likely to render America safer and tame a key source of instability in an increasingly consequential U.S.-Iran dyad.

If it doesn’t get blown up by Congress, that is. And if it does, the administration will, contrary to its endless protestations, be greatly to blame.

How else are we to explain the administration’s impending confrontation with Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Corker? Corker’s proposal to give Congress a vote on the Iran deal—a far more palatable approach than what many of his colleagues have tried—is likely to advance out of his committee next week, and the administration is scrambling to keep Democrats from supporting it. Multiple cabinet-level officials have personally reached out to wobbly senators. The measure would need to get thirteen Dems behind it if it’s to override Obama’s promised veto. Recent partisan confrontations over Iran have made such large-scale defections less likely, but the Corker bill’s defeat is no sure thing.

That it has gotten to this point, and that it is a confrontation with Corker rather than more hawkish senators like Mark Kirk or Tom Cotton, reflects a failure in the administration’s outreach to Congress. The talks with Tehran are rooted in a bullet-biting pragmatism: we have tried for years to attain the ideal of an enrichment-free Iran, and have failed; the administration has accepted that painful reality and worked to get the least dangerous Iranian nuclear program we can. Yet the administration has failed to accept a domestic reality it finds just as painful: it will need the support of a skeptical Congress—a skeptical, now-Republican Congress—to lock in a deal. That failure of pragmatism now endangers the deal Team Obama has worked so hard to get.

Nonsense, reply the administration’s boosters: We’ve tried to work with Congress, they wouldn’t play ball, and so we’ll be rightly resisting this attempt to encroach on our constitutional authority. They’re correct that the president has the right to conclude nonbinding agreements with other states, yet one wonders how enthusiastic the Iranians (ever sticklers about the letter of the international laws they elect to follow) should be about a soft commitment from their greatest foe on an issue of central strategic importance. Wouldn’t a binding agreement be more attractive to them—indeed, wouldn’t making the deal binding be a low-cost concession for us that could get us concessions on bigger things? There’s a rub, though—the Senate wouldn’t be out of line in wanting a vote on such a deal, and the administration would need to be on the winning side of that vote. That requires working seriously with Congress. By dodging Congress instead, the administration may have put itself in a weaker position at the negotiating table with Iran while making the deal more vulnerable on Capitol Hill. Some tactics!

There is another way to get that binding agreement: to negotiate a nonbinding agreement with the Iranians and then vote for a binding resolution on the agreement’s terms in the United Nations Security Council. America would then be required to comply with the Security Council’s resolution. This legal laundering would have no purpose other than bypassing Congress, so Congress would be quite furious if it were used on such an important issue, and will want to ensure it isn’t; in parallel, an administration cultivating good relations with Congress would want to rule it out. Indeed, in a healthy relationship, Congress would not even need assurance—such chicanery would be unthinkable.