Things between U.S. President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress have been rough as of late, particularly when the word “Iran” is mentioned. The notorious letter to Iran drafted by U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton with the support of 46 Republican Senators — allegedly intending to educate Iranian officials about the American system but more-so revealing a distant understanding of international law and an unyielding effort to undermine Obama’s authority — was, among other things, unprecedented.
But despite these tensions, things between Obama and Congress may be smoothing out with regard to Iran. On April 14, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations unanimously approved legislation that would give Congress a role in the negotiations process — with the White House’s backing.
Bipartisan in its nature, the new compromise championed by Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Cardin will, most importantly, allow Congress 30 days to review a final deal. Answering to both Republican and Democratic concerns, it also eliminates a requirement that the United States confirm Iran is “not sponsoring terrorism against Americans” and grants Congress a level of jurisdiction in the lifting of sanctions.
What maintains the Obama administration’s authority in the negotiations process, however, is that Congress still does not have the upper hand in approving a general deal with Iran — and justifiably so. The dragging negotiations process between the P5+1 and Iran had very little direct congressional involvement. Frankly, the number of foreign policy decisions previous presidents have made without explicit Congressional approval attest to Congress’ selective pressure on Obama.
The compromise reached by lawmakers on April 14 seems to realize this, for Congress can only insert itself so far into a negotiations process it has not really been a part of (and for good reason). According to The New York Times, Obama can veto any resolution Congress has passed — so long as 34 Senators or 146 Representatives refuse to override the veto. Additionally, Obama can “lift sanctions imposed under his own authority and can suspend other sanctions imposed by Congress.”
Alluding to what Cotton got wrong when authoring the letter to Iran, international law does not distinguish between congressionally ratified treaties and/or executive agreements. Therefore, any agreement with or without ratification will be internationally binding. It will also endure with or without the next administration’s approval, as the subjects to international law are not governments, but states.
The errant relationship between Obama and Congress has, since its inception, offered a combative, one-sided purview. The truculent exchange has even inspired a heated Sunday editorial by the Times. But the legislation does open doors by affording Obama the respect necessary to proceed with and finalize an agreement. Considering the president’s role in the negotiations process in proportion to that of Congress, this is not an irrational submission to authority, but rather an absolutely necessary admission of his line of work.
Reuters reported that Wednesday brought new challenges and stipulations to the Iran nuclear deal, including Iran’s demands for immediate sanctions relief.
Understandably, congressional leaders want similar levels of respect and participation in such a controversial process. Negotiating with Iran is not an easy thing, and the decision to negotiate with Iran certainly was not either. For some lawmakers, the choice in and of itself is like pulling teeth. But the choice to honor Obama’s discretion insofar as sparing Congress the chance to review an agreement seems like a weighted compromise. Here is to a constitutional, agreeable solution with both Congress and the Obama administration exercising their respective authorities.