As the Obama administration
moves closer to a diplomatic agreement with Iran regarding its nuclear program,
a bipartisan group of senators—including Foreign Relations Committee Chairman
Bob Corker and ranking Democrat Bob Menendez—has put forward legislation that
would provide Congress with a mechanism to review such a deal. The White House
has threatened a veto, arguing that a deal with Iran would be a “nonbinding”
executive agreement and therefore congressional review would represent an
Not so. The Constitution and history, not to
mention common sense, argue that it is entirely proper for America’s elected
representatives in Congress to review a far-reaching agreement with a foreign
government of such national-security significance. The president as commander in
chief deserves deference in devising national-security strategy, but Congress
has clear constitutional standing and an institutional prerogative not to be cut
out of the process.
Each of the Constitution’s grants of
foreign-policy authority to the president is checked and balanced by a grant of
foreign-policy authority to Congress. For example, the two most explicit
foreign-policy powers the Constitution gives to the president—selecting
ambassadors and making international treaties—both require Senate consent.
The legislation now before the Senate, which
may be taken up as early as next week, would allow Congress to assume its
rightful role in a responsible, measured way. Rather than treating an Iran
agreement as a treaty—which would require formal ratification by two-thirds of
the Senate—the bill would adopt a less stringent standard.
Each chamber of Congress would have the
opportunity to hold a vote of approval or disapproval of a deal under expedited
rules of procedure; in the absence of a joint resolution of disapproval by both
the House and Senate, the deal would automatically take effect. This would
ensure there is a structured process for deliberation and debate.
The Obama administration instead intends to
treat an Iran deal like a status of forces agreement, known as a SOFA, which
spells out rules for U.S. soldiers deployed in a foreign country. These are
typically nonbinding executive agreements that do not involve a congressional
But the analogy is flawed. Unlike SOFAs, which
tend to be administrative and technical in nature, a nuclear deal with Iran
would represent a historic and highly controversial strategic
commitment—precisely the kind of national decision in which congressional
involvement is most warranted.
Congress should also review an Iran agreement
because of the unusually extensive and direct role it has already played in
formulating exactly those policies that a nuclear deal would alter and undo.
Congress in 2010 designed and passed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions,
Accountability and Divestment Act, which sought to punish companies and
individuals that did business with Iran’s petroleum sector. Legislation in
2012 added further restrictions.
The essence of any deal would relieve the
Iranians from such sanctions in exchange for certain restrictions on their
nuclear activities. The sanctions under negotiation, however, are overwhelmingly
the creation of Congress—put in law through bills passed by large bipartisan
majorities. Given that Congress built the sanctions against Iran, it is
unreasonable to bar it from any review or oversight in how that architecture is
Finally, what about the argument that Tehran
would object to congressional review, thus making an agreement more difficult to
reach? This doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
If presidents of both parties during the Cold
War could submit sensitive nuclear-arms-control agreements negotiated with the
Soviet Union to Congress for two-thirds ratification—when atomic doomsday
loomed—surely the same can be done today. While congressional review might be
unpalatable to the Iranians, as it surely was to the Soviets, we should not
ignore our Constitution or suspend our best democratic practices to win
agreements with our adversaries.
The great political scientist Edward Corwin
observed more than half a century ago that the Constitution is “an invitation
to struggle for the privilege of directing American foreign policy.” It is
exactly this struggle between Congress and the president—which is almost as
old as our republic—playing out now over a possible agreement with Iran,
reflecting the divided and often overlapping lines of responsibility for foreign
policy that our Founders assigned to Congress and the president.
Presidents are rarely enthusiastic when
Congress asserts itself in foreign policy. But our most successful leaders have
recognized the need to win the support, or at least acquiescence, of Capitol
Hill for their most ambitious national-security initiatives, because that is one
of the best ways to ensure the support of the American people and to make it
more likely those initiatives will endure.
Congress has every right to review any
agreement with Iran that the Obama administration reaches. The administration
would benefit greatly if any deal it negotiates passes muster on Capitol Hill as
well as in Tehran.
Mr. Lieberman, a former four-term U.S.
senator from Connecticut, is senior counsel at Kasowitz, Benson, Torres &