There is a notion cultivated by opponents of the Iran nuclear agreement, attractive to members of Congress under intense pressure to vote no, that congressional rejection of the agreement will enable U.S. negotiators to reach a better deal. The expectation is, that with a further turn of the screws, we can pressure the Iranians to give more and/or we give less. But it can’t happen.
The agreement needs to be judged on its merits, and the consequences of rejecting it need to be confronted without the illusion that there will be another, easier chance. Opponents cannot escape through a trapdoor marked “later.” There is no later; this is the end of the line. Rejection fundamentally shifts the balance of power on Iran from the president to the Congress in a way that makes a future agreement virtually impossible to achieve. Voting no deprives this president, or a future president, of bargaining power over the Iranians. It isolates us in the world. And it allows Iran to move further toward a nuclear weapon, presenting the United States and Israel with terrible choices.
The Iran nuclear deal deserves to be supported on its merits. It is not without risks, and it does not solve the Iran threat in the region. But it will prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon for at least 15 years. The appropriate comparison is not increasing Iran’s “breakout time” from three months to 12 months. It is three months today as opposed to 12 months 15 years from now—unless in the interim Iran decides—having cut its stockpiles, dismantled its centrifuges, and closed or altered its nuclear fuel-making facilities—to defy the international community by undertaking what almost certainly would be a visible “mad dash” to the bomb.
It will be virtually impossible for Iran to cheat in a strategically significant way. Every step of its program will be monitored live by international inspectors on the ground, cameras, seals, satellites and every other modern surveillance device known to man. The risk to Iran of any significant cheating would be to undo any refurbishment of its perception in the world, which it seems so anxious to achieve, and create the need for a sudden new narrative for its people.
If Iran refuses to give us access to a suspicious site, despite wild arithmetic by some critics, the deal is adequate if we have the steadfastness to enforce it. The United States, by ourselves, can trigger within 24 days a U.N. Security Council resolution to reimpose sanctions—“in whole or in part”—and can’t be blocked by the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians—even the Europeans. That time period can be used quite effectively to build pressure on Iran to open the site. If we are skittish about invoking this the first time, we should not be the second time, or the third, when the pattern of deception is clear.
Finally, it is important to be just as clear about what the agreement will not do. It will not stop Iran from supporting Bashar Assad and Hezbollah in Syria, sponsoring terrorist groups and other efforts that threaten Israel, and exploiting instability in the region to advance its ambitions for regional influence. Iran’s revolutionary underpinnings run deep, and we should not expect them to change because of this agreement. But that is a reason to support the agreement, not oppose it. Iran’s position in each of the conflicts it seeks to exploit will be stronger if Iran has a viable nuclear capability. It will be emboldened further and alter the regional balance.
There are reasonable questions that the Obama administration needs to answer. Questioning the agreement is not an act of warmongering. But one “safe harbor” for members who see the benefits, are concerned about the downsides and are seeking a strategic path to “no” is an illusion: that somehow—through the continuing stress of sanctions on the Iranian people or otherwise—this agreement will come around again a second time in better form. Those who vote “no” need to own the likely consequences of voting no.
The reason goes to the heart of the matter before the Congress. The disapproval resolution that it will consider by September 17 will strip the president of the authority to waive or suspend any congressional sanctions against Iran, including those that were waived as part of the interim agreement that essentially froze Iran’s nuclear program during the negotiations. Thereafter, it will take some affirmative act of the Congress to give the president authority once again to lift sanctions. Of course, it was the prospect of such sanctions relief that brought Iran to the negotiating table and that was our bargaining leverage to secure concessions from Iran.
It is virtually impossible to conceive of this Congress—or any Congress in the foreseeable future—giving this president, or a future president, authority to lift or suspend sanctions on Iran without some form of congressional approval. Such a new grant of authority to the president would require, under today’s circumstances, a filibuster-proof, bipartisan affirming majority in both Houses. There is no prospect of gaining 60 votes in the Senate to give the president authority to waive any sanctions on Iran. Rejecting the deal—defeating it in both the Senate and the House and overriding a likely presidential veto—rather than enhancing the president’s negotiating leverage, will eviscerate it.
Consider the consequences of this outcome.
First, the president would lose the bargaining leverage he has to get a better deal from Iran. He can no longer promise to lift sanctions, which is what brought them to the negotiating table; the best he can give is a promissory note to go back to Congress and seek a super-majority for sanctions relief—this time requiring 60 votes in the Senate. The Iranians will understand that is meaningless.
Samuel R. Berger is the former White House national security advisor and current co-chair of Albright Stonebridge Group.