I’m not fully convinced that the following is a possibility. But it’s something to think about, in conjunction with Andrew McCarthy’s proposal for a new approach to scuttling Obama’s terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad “deal,” which paves Iran’s path to nuclear weapons.
Things were looking bleak for opponents of the non-deal “deal” – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA – as this past week came to a close. At last count, Obama had 37 votes for the JCPOA in the Senate. That’s three more than he needs to guarantee that his veto of a resolution against the JCPOA will hold up.
It’s still four votes short of what Senate Democrats need to filibuster a disapproval resolution entirely, so that Obama doesn’t have to suffer the political embarrassment of a negative vote. But the pile-on after Barbara Mikulski of Maryland became Obama’s decisive 34th vote – three additional senators adding their names in support of the president – led some observers to think Democrats might get to the 41 votes needed for a filibuster. Obama might not even have to go through the motions of vetoing a negative vote and then having his veto upheld, by an unpopular but sufficient minority of senators.
Andrew McCarthy gives this situation a fresh look, and proposes that opponents of the JCPOA introduce a bill – as they properly and honestly can – resolving that Obama hasn’t met the intent of the Corker-Cardin bill that tried to ensure Congress would have a review of the Iran “agreement.” He makes a strong case that Obama hasn’t met the bill’s requirements.
And McCarthy’s contention is that since Obama hasn’t complied with the terms of Corker-Cardin, at all, Congress should decline to review the Iran agreement on the basis specified in the bill – which is that it’s an executive agreement (not a treaty), but Congress will review it anyway.
Instead, the Senate should consider it a treaty, and vote it up or down on its merits in that context. That would free the Senate to consider the JCPOA’s provisions according to the standards that would apply to a treaty, by which it clearly falls short. McCarthy is confident that the Senate would “vote it down by a wide margin,” if it had to face an advise-and-consent gauntlet.
He may well be right about that. But what I found equally intriguing was this point: that the Senate should also reaffirm the continuation of sanctions as U.S. law.
McCarthy suggests Congress make it very clear that no matter what Obama does – even assuming he suspends sanctions enforcement – sanctions will still be written into U.S. law when the next president takes office. The rest of the nations are to understand that the next American president will have what he needs to begin enforcing sanctions again, on 20 January 2017.
McCarthy may be overestimating the wariness this would induce in the other nations, between now and January 2017. But his point about reaffirming sanctions is important because it directly addresses the latest demand made by Ayatollah Khamenei.
The Wall Street Journal noted this demand in an op-ed from the weekend edition. The editorial frames it as a gambit undertaken for domestic political purposes, given that Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani have made conflicting statements about whether the Iranian majlis (parliament) should vote on the JCPOA.
But Andrew McCarthy’s proposal could leverage that conflict, and the ayatollah’s new demand, to present the Iranians with a “no” from the United States that Obama can’t avert or undermine.
The ayatollah’s demand is, precisely, that the sanctions be lifted entirely, as an act of national law. Merely suspending them is not good enough:
Now he says economic sanctions must be permanently lifted and not merely suspended under the “snap-back” mechanism, or he’ll scuttle the entire deal.
Keep in mind, Obama’s high card throughout this process has been that he can suspend enforcement of the sanctions, even if Congress tells him not to. Between now and January 2017, Congress has no mechanism by which to force Obama to keep administering the sanctions. That’s why Obama was confident in putting this language into the JCPOA:
The United States, acting pursuant to Presidential authorities, will issue waivers, to take effect upon Implementation Day, ceasing the application of the statutory nuclear-related sanctions as specified in Sections 17.1 to 17.2 of this Annex. The President will also take action to direct that all appropriate additional measures be taken to implement the cessation of application of sanctions as specified in Sections 17.1 to 17.4 of this Annex, including the termination of Executive orders as specified in Section 17.4, and the licensing of activities as specified in Section 17.5. [p. 154 at the link, paragraph 11]
Obama has already committed to suspend (issue waivers for) the sanctions – no matter what Congress does.
But Khamenei has now said that suspension isn’t good enough. He will walk away from the JCPOA if sanctions aren’t ended permanently.
Does he mean it? One way to find out. McCarthy’s proposal would put the U.S. in a position to present Khamenei with a decision point on which – this time – the U.S. is not going to back down. Obama can’t force Congress to terminate the sanctions as Khamenei has demanded.
There are no slam-dunks or failsafes in this process. Don’t be too sure that the bottom line for the Iranians is wanting the money they’ll get from seeing the sanctions lifted. I continue to assess that their bottomest of bottom lines is retaining the latitude to pursue a bomb without interference from an Israeli attack. And at this point, walking away from the JCPOA, at least for now, might well be a better way to forestall an Israeli attack than letting the terms of the JCPOA play out on schedule. That’s a transient dynamic, to be sure, but that’s how Iran has been playing it all along.
It’s also possible that Khamenei didn’t really mean what he said (i.e., he only said it as a domestic political maneuver – not to state a principle that will govern Iran’s actions in the end). But if he did mean it, then we should put him in a corner, with the certainty that U.S. law will not be changed to permanently end the sanctions. Congress can make that happen, no matter what Obama wants. Andrew McCarthy’s proposal, besides having merit on other considerations, is a good course of action for it.