FPI Bulletin: U.N. Vote Subverts Congressional Oversight of Iran Nuclear Deal

By Tzvi Kahn

July 20, 2015

By advancing a U.N. Security Council (UNSC) vote on the Iranian nuclear agreement today, the Obama administration violated its pledge to provide Congress with a meaningful role in reviewing the deal. Instead, its decision ensures the dismantling of the international sanctions architecture with or without congressional approval. The White House’s move also demonstrates bad faith by ignoring the 98 senators and 400 representatives who voted for the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which authorizes a congressional vote on the deal.
Over the past two years, the Obama administration repeatedly affirmed the importance of a robust congressional role in reviewing any deal with Iran. “What we do will have to pass muster with Congress,” Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) in April 2014. Similarly, when President Obama first announced the nuclear agreement last week, he observed, “On such a tough issue, it is important that the American people and their representatives in Congress get a full opportunity to review the deal. After all, the details matter.”
Despite a commitment in principle to congressional oversight, the Obama administration resisted efforts to ensure that lawmakers would have a voice. In February 2015, when Congress sought to formalize its role by passing the bipartisan Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, the White House threatened to veto the bill. Weeks later, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough wrote a letter to SFRC Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) stating that the administration opposed a congressional vote, but would seek U.N. Security Council approval for any agreement.
In effect, the administration planned to give Russia and China a vote on the deal — but not the duly elected representatives of the American people.
President Obama only dropped his veto threat when a veto-proof majority of the Senate indicated its support for the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, paving the way for its near-unanimous passage in May. Nonetheless, White House opposition forced Congress to water down the bill so that it required a veto-proof majority in both houses to block an agreement, making any deal’s ultimate defeat unlikely. Still, by signing the bill into law, President Obama acknowledged that Congress should have its say before any deal was finalized.
Thus, the White House’s move to hold a Security Council vote just six days after the July 14 unveiling of the nuclear deal appeared to contradict the intent of the law. While the nuclear agreement stated that the parties would seek a U.N. vote “without delay,” the text hardly implied a preemption of Congress. After all, the agreement also conditioned a separate nuclear-related provision on the agreement of the Majlis, the Iranian parliament.
The administration then moved forward with the U.N. vote despite bipartisan opposition. On Thursday, SFRC Chairman Bob Corker and Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-MD) wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to postpone the vote. On Friday, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) endorsed Corker and Cardin’s request.
Administration officials have defended their evasion of Congress by describing the agreement as the product of a U.N. process. America’s international partners, said Secretary of State John Kerry, “don’t feel that they should be bound by the United States Congress — they feel that they’ve negotiated under the U.N.” According to U.S. chief negotiator Wendy Sherman, “it would have been a little difficult when all of the members of the P5+1 wanted to go to the United Nations to get an endorsement of this since it is a product of the United Nations process, for us to say, ‘Well, excuse me, the world, you should wait for the United States Congress.’”
This rationale is disingenuous and shows flagrant disrespect for Congress.
From the outset, the United States has led the international community’s effort to halt Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, and played the decisive role in negotiating the current agreement. Just as Tehran demanded deference to its pseudo-democratic parliament, the White House could have insisted on full congressional review before a U.N. vote.
By bypassing lawmakers, the administration implicitly suggests that its deal with Iran cannot withstand the scrutiny of the American people. In fact, the White House push for a UNSC vote may generate a backlash that undermines congressional support for the deal come September. Such a development may not prevent the implementation of the deal in the short run, but it may weaken its domestic legitimacy and undermine its long-term viability — particularly when the next president takes office.