On the surface, Donald Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s approaches to the Iran nuclear agreement seem contradictory. Trump has called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, “disastrous,” “catastrophic,” and “terrible,” while Clinton has said that she is “proud” to have played a role in initiating the negotiations and that the agreement has made America “safer.”
But take a closer look and their positions may not be as different as they seem. Both candidates have declared that Iran will never be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons. Clinton has channeled Ronald Reagan in describing her approach as “mistrust and verify” and proposing “vigorous enforcement, strong monitoring, clear consequences for any violations, and a broader strategy to confront the Islamic Republic’s aggression across the region.” Trump has promised to increase efforts to counter Tehran’s regional interference and to dismantle Iranian supported terrorist organizations.
True, Donald Trump said in a rare set-piece address to AIPAC in March, “My number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” But in the same speech he referred to the agreement as a “contract” and vowed to “enforce the terms of the previous deal to hold Iran totally accountable.” Indeed, given his questioning of the American commitment to its NATO allies, his earlier proposals to ban Muslim travel to the United States, and his plans to “carpet bomb” Iraqi oil fields, Trump has been comparatively constrained on Iran. He was nearly alone among the Republican presidential field in refraining from promising to “rip up” the JCPOA, comparing it to bad business contracts he inherited that were fixed through rigorous enforcement and litigation.
Meanwhile, notwithstanding tough talk, Congress continues to show more bark than bite. Understanding why requires a quick review of legislative efforts to derail the JCPOA last year. In May 2015, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, also known as “Corker-Cardin,” to ensure a role for itself in the nuclear deliberations. As a set of “nonbinding arrangements” between eight negotiating parties with no formal signatories, the Obama administration would seem on solid ground in arguing that the JCPOA is not subject to legislative oversight. And yet President Barack Obama ultimately supported Corker-Cardin because it ensured that despite large majorities against the agreement in both the Senate and House of Representatives, including significant numbers of Democrats, the outcome of the review would never really be in question.
Notwithstanding constitutional debates over executive powers, Congress might have insisted on an aggressive ratification procedure for the JCPOA requiring 67 Senate votes. Instead, Corker-Cardin created a review mechanism whereby the agreement would be considered approved unless Congress passed a joint resolution of disapproval. Although this joint resolution only required absolute majorities in both houses of Congress, Senate rules usually require “cloture” to bring debate on an issue to a close so that votes can proceed. The assent of three-fifths of the Senate is required to achieve cloture, meaning that just 41 Senators could block the resolution of disapproval. In the end, the president was able to muster the support of 42 Senators to oppose cloture, so the resolution of disapproval failed, even though 58 Senators were against the JCPOA. (Had the joint resolution of disapproval passed, it would have been vetoed by Obama. Overriding a presidential veto requires a majority of two-thirds, so that the president only needed to maintain one-third plus one support in either chamber to preserve the JCPOA under the terms of Corker-Cardin.)
Why did the JCPOA’s most vocal congressional opponents agree to a review process that ensured a victory for Obama? The answer is that the debate was carefully calibrated to let members register their vociferous opposition and demands for legislative oversight, while ensuring they would not later be held responsible for precipitating an international crisis, or even military confrontation, with Iran.
This is standard operating procedure in the U.S. Congress. Having learned from the experience of the October 2002 vote to authorize military force in Iraq—and the public fallout that occurred afterward—elected representatives in both parties have since gone to great lengths to avoid taking stands on issues of war and peace. For example, Congress has shirked its responsibilities to provide legal authorization of the U.S. military campaign against the Islamic State, notwithstanding the individual efforts of members such as Democratic Senator Tim Kaine and Republican Senator Jeff Flake.
In the Senate alone this year, there are at least four major new Iran-related legislative initiatives (S.2725, S.2988, S.3267, and S.3281). Presumably, a way will be found in the year-end lame duck session to renew the Iran Sanctions Act, a core component of the American sanctions architecture against the Islamic Republic, which expires in December. But for all of the huffing and puffing, when Congress reconsiders Iran after the November elections, it is likely to do what it usually does—as little as possible.
And, despite sharp differences in tone, both Trump and Clinton advocate similar approaches: strict enforcement of the nuclear agreement combined with a policy of deterring Iranian aggression and supporting regional partners.
It remains to be seen what the JCPOA’s final legacy is. At this point, the aspirations of its most optimistic supporters that the deal would usher in a new era in U.S.-Iranian relations or transform Iranian politics seem likely to be disappointed. But most would agree that the JCPOA has achieved its narrower nonproliferation objective of cutting off, for the time being, all pathways to an Iranian nuclear weapon. Politically, the agreement is a fait accompli. To abrogate it in 2017 would create an international crisis favoring Tehran, since much of the international sanctions regime has already been dismantled.
To those who were expecting the JCPOA to die an ignominious death after the exit of the Obama administration, don’t count on it.