Can Congress Contain Trump’s Worst Impulses on Iran?

Congress is taking back its power, at least according to some. “[C]ongressional Republicans are reacquiring a constitutional…ethic,” wrote Washington Post columnist George Will on July 28. Indeed, from the bipartisan Tillis-Coons legislation to protect special counsel Bob Mueller from being fired to Sen. Lamar Alexander’s moves against President Trump’s threats to unilaterally bring down the Affordable Care Act, there are some small signs that in the Trump era, Congress won’t be quite so deferential to the executive.

This may be especially true on foreign policy. Much is being made of the Russia sanctions law that, among other things, gives Congress the authority to override the president’s ability to waive sanctions. As Daniel Hemel points out, “the sanctions bill… marks a slight but notable shift in the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches on matters of international relations.” Other signs that Congress is reasserting itself on foreign policy include a (narrowly-defeated) attempt to constrain the president’s authority to conclude an arms deal with Saudi Arabia and an increased interest in repealing the 2001 and 2002 war authorizations.

How might this trend apply to the Iran nuclear deal, arguably one of the biggest foreign policy issues of today? Signed in 2015, this landmark diplomatic agreement between Iran and six international powers (U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China, and Germany) required Iran to give up all of its pathways to a bomb and allow for intrusive on-the-ground monitoring in exchange for the lifting of multilateral and unilateral sanctions. It also averted an escalating crisis that could have led to war between Iran and the United States over its nuclear program.

The ministers of foreign affairs and other officials from the P5+1 countries, the European Union, and Iran when announcing the Iran nuclear deal framework.

Two years later, after seven International Atomic Energy Agency compliance reports, and several executive branch certifications — the latest in July — it is clear the agreement is working. Iran’s ability to break-out to a bomb has grown from as little as a few weeks to now at least a year.

Despite this, Trump is reportedly looking for a pretext to kill the Iran deal. Frustrated that Iran is complying with the accord and that his top advisers forced him to recertify Iran’s compliance in July, Trump has tasked a team with laying the groundwork to decertify and kill the Iran deal in October. In other words, Trump’s intention is to claim that Iran isn’t abiding by the nuclear deal so he can kill it; now he just needs to find the evidence. (Reminder: the Bush administration used cooked evidence as a pretext for the Iraq War. In addition, it should be noted that entrenched deal opponents are also urging this approach.)

To understand whether and how Congress can defy Trump on the Iran nuclear agreement, it’s helpful to look at some of the things Congress has already done with respect to the deal. In May 2015, as the Iran deal was being finalized by the previous administration, Congress passed the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA). For our purposes, it’s useful to know that law set up increased reporting requirements for the executive branch, provided a mechanism for Congress to disapprove of the agreement following its finalization, and created procedures to consider legislation that would reimpose nuclear sanctions in the event that the president failed to certify Iranian compliance with the agreement.

Proponents of the bill claimed it allowed for a proper voice in the debate. In reality, it was also a way to begin undermining one of President Obama’s signature diplomatic achievements. Indeed, two months after the deal was agreed to in July 2015, Congress considered whether to support the deal. The real battle took place in the Senate, where 60 votes were needed for formal disapproval (vs. a simple majority in the House). In the end, 42 Democrats announced their support for the agreement, killing passage of the disapproval measure and allowing the Iran deal to be implemented.

To be sure, following years of Republican-led opposition to the deal, it would be foolish to put faith in the idea that the current Congress will save us. Still, should Trump follow through with his intention of pulling the United States from the deal, the disastrous consequences would include allowing an unrestrained Iranian nuclear program (thus putting us back on a path to war), diminishing America’s ability to make meaningful future international agreements, losing the trust of our strongest allies, and roiling international financial markets. With this in mind, let’s examine the few ways in which Congress could push back:

  • Push Trump privately. Recent Republican behavior on health care, Russia sanctions, and other issues gives rise to a modicum of hope that a responsible cadre of Republicans would be willing to privately urge Trump not to go forward with pulling out of the agreement. We have seen hints that some Republicans are uncomfortable with the United States unilaterally withdrawing from the agreement. Sen. Bob Corker, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — no fan of the agreement himself — has argued that Trump would create a crisis by tearing up the agreement. As Sen. Rand Paul has said, “As much as I was not a great fan of the nuclear agreement, I thought that if Iran adhered to it, it would be a good thing.” It’s possible that they and others are trying to communicate that message to Trump privately as well.
  • Refuse to pile on to Trump’s irresponsible actions. Passing nuclear sanctions without clear evidence that Iran is violating the nuclear deal is endorsing Trump’s alternative facts and aggression toward Iran. Congress can and should consider strategies for countering Iran’s non-nuclear activities. But if Congress helps Trump kill the deal by unnecessarily reimposing sanctions, Congress is responsible for Trump’s damage.
  • Mandate a report to Congress and the public. Were Congress to mandate a substantial, publicly available reporting requirement related to Iranian compliance with the agreement, Trump would have a much harder time getting away with false or misleading statements about Iran’s behavior about the deal.
  • Speak out publicly. All Members of Congress, both deal supporters and those who opposed it but now understand its value, should consider speaking out strongly against a plan to rip up the agreement based on misleading justifications. As the North Korea crisis shows, once a lid is off a program, it is that much more difficult to get it back on.

Earlier this year, the New York Times asked, “Will the presidency survive this president?,” suggesting that Congress and the courts could take severe actions to diminish the office of the president because of Trump’s indiscretions. In the end, it argues, “damage to the office is secondary” to damage that Trump could do to the country. Trump could create a crisis with Iran that would do irreparable damage to this country. The question is, what will Congress do to constrain him?

Erica Fein is the advocacy director at Win Without War, a national coalition that fights to promote a more progressive national security strategy. She is a Political Partner at Truman National Security Project. The views expressed here are her own.