As debate intensifies over the nuclear agreement reached with Iran, the Obama administration has sought to deflect criticism by arguing that there is no alternative to the current framework, no matter what its flaws, and that its rejection by Congress is guaranteed to produce catastrophe — isolating the United States from its allies and destroying any prospect for a diplomatic settlement. A vote against its preferred policy, the administration has argued (not for the first time), is a vote for war.
The administration has used these same arguments before to try to stop Congress from imposing economic sanctions on Iran. Not only did the predictions of catastrophe fail to deter Congress from moving ahead but also, when the sanctions were adopted, the doomsday forecasts were proven wrong — just as the current predictions will be. And when the scare tactics failed and the vote count in Congress started to turn heavily against its position, the White House changed course — just as it can and should now.
I was a member of the Senate when, between 2009 and 2012, Congress developed a series of bills that dramatically increased pressure on Tehran for its illicit nuclear activities, including adopting a measure in late 2011 that effectively banned Iran from selling oil — its economic lifeblood — on international markets. In every case, senior Obama administration officials worked to block congressional efforts, warning that they were unnecessary, counterproductive and even dangerous.
Much like today, the White House repeatedly argued that sanctions would isolate the United States and alienate our allies whose help we needed. In the case of the oil ban, a Cabinet member bluntly told members that adopting the measure risked torpedoing the global economic recovery.
These predictions proved false. In fact, it was only because of the sanctions adopted by Congress, and ultimately signed by President Obama, that sufficient economic pressure was put on the Iranian government that its leaders came to the negotiating table — a truth the Obama administration now accepts and asserts. Our allies and partners did not always welcome new restrictions on doing business in Tehran, but in the end, they decided it was more important to do business in the United States.
It is important for members of Congress deciding how to vote on the current proposal to consider this history because it reminds us of the administration’s past misguided efforts to stop, slow or weaken sanctions bills. Equally important, recent legislative history tells us that as bipartisan congressional support for these bills began to snowball, the White House shifted its position.
At first, members of Congress — particularly Democrats — were warned not to do anything. But as the administration began to see the votes slipping from its grip, it changed tack and started negotiating the timing and scope of the prospective new law.
Indeed, the same drama played out just a few months ago, as Congress debated whether it should review the then-impending nuclear agreement. Here too, the White House insisted that requiring legislative review and approval of a nuclear agreement with Iran was obstructive and damaging. But when Democrats began to support the legislation, and it was clear that a strong bipartisan coalition was converging around the idea, the administration withdrew its opposition and the president signed the legislation. The current congressional review is the result.
Congress should keep this experience in mind as it reviews the nuclear agreement with Iran. While the White House predictably is trying to scaremonger Capitol Hill into taking no action, experience and common sense suggest that the reality after congressional rejection is likely to be quite different. In the aftermath of Sen. Charles Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) principled and courageous stand against the proposed agreement, the prospects for such a bipartisan rejection seem increasingly likely.
If a bipartisan supermajority does in fact begin to cohere in criticism of the undeniable loopholes and inadequacies of the agreement, it is likely the administration will adjust its position. Provisions that today are impossible to change will become subject to renegotiation and clarification.
The best chance for a better deal, in other words, is overwhelming bipartisan pressure from Capitol Hill about the need for one, rather than acquiescencing to the Obama administration’s claim that this is the best agreement possible because Iran will go no further.
That conclusion overlooks two truths: First, the Iranians are historically capable of adjusting positions they have claimed were immovable to new political realities, and, second, Iran, because of its depleted economy, needs an agreement much more than we do. Congress has the power now to act on these two realities.
This is an initiative, moreover, that many of our friends and partners are likely to welcome. Certainly the countries most affected by the deal — Israel and the Gulf Arab states — have made no secret of their dismay at the concessions granted to the Iranians in the quest for a settlement. Reportedly, even some of our European allies may not be wholly displeased by some congressional push-back — even if not all of them admit so publicly.
Not so long ago, everyone agreed that no deal with Iran was better than a bad deal. Now, the administration has changed the standard to whether it is possible to get a better deal than the flawed one it got in Vienna. History suggests it is — but we will never know unless a bipartisan super-majority comes together to demand it.
Joseph I. Lieberman, a member of the U.S. Senate from 1989 to 2013, is a Democrat who was elected to his last term as an independent. He is senior counsel at Kasowitz, Benson, Torres and Friedman in New York.