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Lawmakers Talk Big on Iran Deal, But Will They Take Action?

Author: David Yee
Created: 16 July, 2015
Updated: 16 October, 2022
3 min read

President Obama may have been a bit too skeptical of the diplomatic process last week when he said the odds were lower than 50/50 that a deal would be reached, with a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) being reached in Vienna on July 14.

The 159-page document is full of technical jargon; acronyms for places, things, and prior agreements that most people have never heard of; and an exceptionally long list of companies and shipping vehicles involved in the suspension of economic sanctions.

But the only thing that anyone really needs to know is this: no side got exactly what they wanted, key to almost any successful diplomatic effort.

The White House was not without a sense of humor, poking fun at the "bomb diagram" Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used as a prop during recent speeches on the Iran threat:


What's Congress Going to Do?

In the entire history of the United States, only 21 treaties have been rejected by the U.S. Senate -- often with disastrous consequences -- including:

  • Refusing to suppress the slave trade in the Caribbean in 1825 (unanimous rejection of treaty);
  • The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 & 1920 (not a bad rejection, but a lack of being at the bargaining table at all);
  • The establishment of the World Court in 1935 (giving fewer diplomatic options prior to all out war in Europe); and
  • The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1999 (sending mixed signals to India, Pakistan, N. Korea, and other states desiring nuclear status).
The JCPOA is not a true treaty, which is the norm, not the exception at this point in American history. Executive agreements are common place, most often based on statutory regulations, but sometimes solely based on executive authority.

The rise of executive agreements is partly because of the difficulty of mustering two-thirds support for or against a treaty (with many treaties in a state of limbo from inaction). This is partly because of the sheer volume of business conducted by the federal government with foreign entities, and partly just a tactic to circumvent the constitutional requirements.

However, international law sees no difference between executive agreements and full treaties.

In May 2015, after the P5+1 came to an initial agreement with Iran, Congress passed the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 which gave congress a 60-day review period of any final deal, with the ability to accept or reject the deal on a simple majority vote in both houses of Congress.

Congress can now:

  • Do nothing and it becomes binding;
  • Reject the deal, and it will almost certainly be vetoed; or
  • Accept the deal, and take the political collateral damage from aligning with the president's foreign policy aims.

Accepting the deal is almost certainly not going to be the tactic of the Republican majority. In an election cycle this important, there is no way that partisan politics will give either side a significant "easy" victory.

Rejecting the deal also has its political consequences. In particular, a veto would be almost impossible to override in both houses. It is unlikely that the Republicans want to be handed such a significant loss, especially if Iran complies with the agreement through the 2016 election.

Doing nothing, which might be inevitable due to Senate cloture rules, is probably what will happen. The Republicans win by portraying it as "business as usual" politics in Washington; the administration wins with a significant foreign policy advancement -- and then it's totally up in the air until the 2016 election as to what fallout Iran will create by balking at implementation.

Lack of congressional action, with the Iranian government "cheating" on the deal would be politically the best thing possible for the Republican Party, giving themselves the appearance of having their hands tied, while in a great position for a later "told-you-so" political jab.