The debate over the deal President Obama has cut with Iran’s rulers is supposed to end this week. The New York Times, The Associated Press and others in the media are reporting that the White House has achieved a “victory.” On what basis?
Polls show most Americans — 55 percent in the most recent Quinnipiac poll — oppose the agreement. Only 25 percent support it. A bipartisan majority in Congress — 60 percent — disapproves the deal as well.
Not for the first time, Mr. Obama is playing by his own rules. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is a nuclear arms control agreement with the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism. Common sense and perhaps the Constitution dictate that it should have been presented as a treaty. But as a treaty, it would need to garner a two-thirds vote in the Senate, reflecting a solid national consensus.
Mr. Obama knew he couldn’t achieve that level of support. In the end, he won’t even get a simple majority. So he marginalized Congress, creatively framing the deal as a “non-binding political agreement.” That way, he can veto a congressional vote of no confidence. A supermajority would be required to overcome his veto. Perhaps that’s a victory for the president, but it’s surely a loss for such principles as separation of powers, checks and balances and majority rule.
Mr. Obama is hoping for one more “victory.” If he can get Senate Democrats to filibuster, no votes will be cast in the Senate and he won’t need to bother exercising his veto.
Think about that: Every Democratic senator voted for the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. Its sole purpose: to ensure that members of Congress would at least have an opportunity to express their opinions. Those supporting a filibuster will be declaring that, upon reflection, they prefer to muzzle themselves and play no role whatsoever on an issue vital to the security of America and its allies. Perhaps they have more important things to do.
It was always a myth, albeit one widely circulated on both the left and the right, that congressional disapproval, even if it were veto-proof, would “kill” the deal. As my colleague Mark Dubowitz has said for months, President Obama could have plowed ahead regardless using executive powers that Congress would be unlikely to successfully challenge.
He would have reiterated that the JCPOA was endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. He would have ignored the fact that the U.N. Security Council includes Russia and China, adversaries of the United States, and Venezuela, a self-declared enemy of the U.S. serving a term as a nonpermanent member. He would have contended that Congress cannot overrule the “international community.” He would have been wrong — the U.N. is not a global government — but here again I’m not confident that Congress would have found a way to meaningfully contradict him.
Last week, Sen. Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, declared his disapproval of the deal. On Tuesday, Sen. Joe Manchin did as well. That makes four Democrats in the Senate and, so far, 15 Democrats in the House opposing the agreement. Among the reasons Mr. Cardin gave: “It would provide Iran with international endorsement of an industrial-scale nuclear program. Worse, Iran would be economically strengthened by frighteningly quick relief from sanctions and international economic engagement.”
He added: “The agreement talks about normalization of economic relations with Iran and states that the parties shall ‘implement this JCPOA in good faith based on mutual respect.’ But there cannot be respect for a country that actively foments regional instability, advocates for Israel’s destruction, kills the innocent and shouts ‘Death to America.’ “
Mr. Cardin was speaking truth to power. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has belonged to both parties, wrote last month that “if you are a Democrat who opposes the agreement, you are also risking your political career. That’s the message the White House and some liberal leaders are sending.”
It’s telling that many Democrats who approve the deal are doing so with less-than-ringing endorsements. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey last week called the agreement “dangerous” and “deeply flawed.” The United States, he recalled, began the talks with the “stated intention of preventing Iran from having the capability to get a nuclear weapon. Unfortunately, it’s clear we didn’t achieve that objective and have only delayed — not blocked — Iran’s potential nuclear breakout.”
There are several ways this deal could still be undone. Even as Mr. Obama was sidelining the U.S. Congress, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was announcing that the Majlis, Iran’s faux-parliament, “should not be sidelined on the nuclear deal issue.” He said he would not tell those officials whether to register their “approval or disapproval” of the agreement. So their votes will count but not those of U.S. senators? And would you be surprised if they demanded a few more concessions from the Great Satan?
Meanwhile, Rep. Mike Pompeo and several other members of Congress are arguing that Mr. Obama has failed to comply with the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. That law requires the president to give Congress access to the entire agreement, specifically including “side agreements.” The side agreement between Iran and U.N. inspectors — which contains significant inspection and verification provisions vital to the success of Mr. Obama’s deal — remains secret.
This Friday happens to be the anniversary of an attack that should have awakened us all to the threat posed by those whose goal is to destroy America. In a saner world, that would concentrate political minds on the wisdom of a deal that will enrich, empower, embolden and relegitimize the self-proclaimed anti-Western revolutionaries who rule Iran.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.