Among the many revelations in a recent leaked interview with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is a cursory reflection on the nuclear deal his country signed with the world powers in 2015. Zarif admits that he was “naive” to assume that US President Barack Obama could keep a deal he did without the approval of Congress.
He’s right. The Joint comprehensive action plan, as the deal is officially called, was a case study of the limits of the president’s power in drafting contracts. The lack of any congressional imprimatur to the deal made it easy for Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, to simply break away from it.
Now that the signatories are entering the home straight in negotiations to bring the US back into line, they are making the same mistake. President Biden, keen to revive the deal, is making no significant effort to involve Congress; the Iranians despite question the reliability American promises do not insist that they are covered by law.
The smarter way for both sides is to wait for a treaty that will be sanctioned by the US Senate.
Without such confirmation, the credibility of a revived nuclear deal will depend on the political calculations of the upcoming presidents. This, in turn, will undermine the economic value of the deal: who would invest in Iran knowing that sanctions could easily be reimposed by the next resident of the White House? And should the dividends from the deal fail to meet Iran’s expectations, it could be forced to rethink its own commitments.
An agreement that mitigates Iran’s threat to the Middle East and avoids conflict with the US is far too important to be left to the whim of the executive branch. Both Washington and Tehran should strive in good faith to reach domestic political consensus.
The Iranians will have an easier time. While the views of the various political groups on the agreement differ in part, there is general agreement on the need to free the Islamic Republic from economic sanctions. This is also the view of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – and, unlike the American president, his office is not subject to fluctuations in electoral policy.
Biden has to climb a higher mountain. Under the US Constitution, converting the nuclear deal into a treaty would require the approval of two-thirds of the Senate. At first glance, this seems like an impossible standard. There are non-partisan skepticism on the agreement and broad support for a revised agreement that addresses not only the nuclear threat posed by Iran but also the other types of threats to the Middle East, including its support for terrorist groups and sectarian militias.
Khamenei said Iran will not expand the scope of the negotiations currently under way in Vienna, but not long ago it refused to even talk about its nuclear program. The election of a new president this month will give Tehran an opportunity to restart. Biden must convince the Iranians and Congress that a comprehensive treaty is the result they both want – an agreement that will survive the vagaries of time and presidential policy alike.
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