Congress Trying To Undercut Obama’s Iran Deal?

Some Members of Congress are talking about pushing a bill imposing new sanction on Iran despite the deal reached in Geneva yesterday.

Capitol Building Dusk

The domestic reception to the temporary deal struck over the weekend regarding Iran’s nuclear program has set of a series of different reactions on Capitol Hill that don’t necessarily adhere to traditional political boundaries. While there does seem to be more negative reaction, or at least skepticism, from Republicans and support from Democrats, there is also a quite healthy dose of concern from both sides of the aisle about the details of the deal and assertions from both sides that, notwithstanding the deal, Congress may still go forward with consideration of a bill that would tighten the sanctions against Iran, thus potentially place the President in the politically awkward position of possibly being forced to use his veto pen for the first time on a bill directed at the Iranian nuclear program. While it may be some time before we get to that stage, if we ever do, The Hill notes that leading Democrats and Republicans have been critical of the deal in the short amount of time since it was announced:

Top lawmakers on both side of the aisle on Sunday voiced skepticism about the newly struck agreement with Iran, and vowed to keep up the pressure with sanctions.

Senior members in both chambers said that, at first glance, Iran got the better end of the deal with western powers, China and Russia – effectively exchanging looser sanctions for very little progress in impeding Tehran’s nuclear capabilities.

Some powerful lawmakers have said they’re willing to seek new sanctions now, but delay their implementation until after the six months covered by the current deal. But others weren’t even willing to go that far.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), the No. 3 Democrat in the chamber, called the deal disproportionately good for Iran, and that it was only strong sanctions that gave the United States and its allies any leverage over Tehran.

“This disproportionality of this agreement makes it more likely that Democrats and Republicans will join together and pass additional sanctions when we return in December,” Schumer said in a Sunday statement.

In fact, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office pointed out Sunday that the Virginia Republican and Schumer – rarely allies on any issue - had sounded similar concerns about the deal, and the impact sanctions have had on Iran.

President Obama and top members of his administration, like Secretary of State John Kerry, have stressed that the pressure has been successful – but that pressing ahead with further sanctions could “derail” the new deal.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are among the lawmakers to say they’d be open to putting sanctions in place for six months down the line.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had vowed last week to move ahead with sanctions legislation, but has yet to comment on the agreement finalized this weekend in Geneva.

Menendez added Sunday that he expected any Senate deal on sanctions to allow the U.S. to immediately restart sanctions if Iran fails to live up to its part of the deal.

“Given Iran’s history of duplicity, it will demand ongoing, on-the-ground verification,” Menendez said. “Until Iran has verifiably terminated its illicit nuclear program, we should vigorously enforce existing sanctions.”

The idea of Congress being some kind of bulwark against what hardliners here in the United States are, along with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu, calling a “dangerous” deal seems to be gaining hold if this piece by Jonathan Tobin at Commentary is any indication:

While the president is right to think that no American ally can deter him from pursuing détente with the murderous Iranian regime-as his disdain for both Israel and Saudi Arabia makes clear-there is one factor that could obstruct his misguided attempt to essentially withdraw the U.S. from the Middle East: Congress. Only Congress has the ability to keep Obama honest on Iran.

While much of the mainstream media reacted to the Iran deal with relief at an opportunity to step back from the need to confront the nuclear peril, congressional reaction was both sober and appropriately critical. Both Republicans and Democrats rightly pointed out that the agreement the president grabbed was an unsatisfactory retreat from his past promises. Does this matter? In one sense, the answer is no. Congress is powerless to prevent Obama from signing any deal he wants with Iran. His executive powers allow him to release the billions in frozen assets that are being use to bribe the Iranians to sign the piece of paper in Geneva. But the sanctions that have squeezed Iran’s economy cannot be abrogated by presidential fiat. It will take congressional approval to do that, and if Iran is allowed to keep its nuclear toys and go on enriching uranium, that won’t happen.


As most members of Congress seem to recognize, the choice here was not between war and an unsatisfactory nuclear deal. They rightly disagree with the idea that Iran is too strong to be further opposed or that it is unrealistic to suppose the West can force the regime to give up their nuclear dream. While the signal of weakness from the administration to the Iranians may have convinced them they need not fear the use of force or continued sanctions, a determined stand by Congress may be the only thing that can act as any sort of deterrent against an Iranian nuclear breakout.


While Congress can’t stop the president from embarking on this potentially disastrous course of action toward Iran, it can make it impossible for him to further reward the ayatollahs if they continue their past policy of deceiving the West. The president may hope that once agreements are signed, the world will stop caring about Iranian nukes. But the House and the Senate should use their power of the purse to obstruct such a craven retreat from American responsibility. They are the only ones who have any hope of keeping Obama honest on Iran. And they should not be intimidated from doing so by anti-Semitic slanders.

There are several portions of Tobin’s argument that are, of course, just factually incorrect. For example, it simply is not the case that the Geneva deal dismantles the sanctions against Iran in any significant respect. All it does is lift a portion of those sanctions on a temporary basis in return for the concessions that the Iranians have made with regard to their nuclear program, including delays in enrichment and the downgrading of material that has been enriched beyond a certain point. This is a fairly standard diplomatic “carrot and stick” approach that typifies nearly every agreement made at the international level, especially a temporary one like this that’s meant to be lay the groundwork for a broader agreement. If the deal falls apart at some point, or if the Iranians end up not complying, then there isn’t anything preventing President Obama from reimposing the sanctions in question. Indeed, based on some of the details that I’ve read at least part of the “lifting of sanctions” that’s taking place involves a one-time act that will allow Iran access to foreign currency reserves that have been frozen for years, it does not mean that the will be allowed any future access to those funds during the six month period that started yesterday.

The bigger question, though, is how much Congress ought to get involved in what is clearly a delicate diplomatic situation. Here we are in a situation where the United States, through the President and Secretary of State, has negotiated a deal along with the leaders of five other nations that is designed to get some degree of cooperation from the Iranians and Members of Congress and the Senate are talking openly about passing legislation that would attempt to increase the sanctions pressure on Iran at the same time that we’re trying to use the promise of slightly lessened sanctions to get them to make the necessary concessions to make real progress.

While I’m ordinarily one of those people who supports the idea of Congress asserting more authority over an increasingly Imperial Presidency, it’s long been the case that foreign policy and diplomatic has been an area where Congress and the Courts generally defers to the President. The reasons for this are, of course, rather obvious. First of all, the Constitution clearly places significant authority in this area in the President’s hands while at the same time giving Congress, or at least the Senate, oversight authority through its duties to approve appointees to diplomatic posts and ratify treaties entered into by the President (which, for a lot of technical reasons best not gotten into here, does not include the Geneva deal). Secondly, when working on the international stage it is always preferable that the United States speak with a single voice, which is a consensus which has generally existed throughout U.S. history. If the President is making one policy while Congress is passing lesson that seemingly contradicts him, it makes it difficult for foreign nations to understand what U.S. policy actually is. Finally, there’s the old adage that ‘politics stops at the water’s edge,’ which generally has been seen to mean not that Congress doesn’t criticize Administration foreign policy, but at least that it doesn’t try to deliberately undercut it. Given all of this, the prospect of a bipartisan group of Congressman and Senators publicly attacking the Geneva deal before they’d really had a chance to digest it was somewhat of an unusual spectacle yesterday, and one wonders what impact it will have on policy vis a vis Iran if it continues.

It’s worth noting, of course, that there’s a strong possibility that what we’re hearing regarding opposition to the Geneva deal from Capitol Hill is meant far  more for domestic consumption than it is as a direct challenge to the President’s authority or judgment. On both the left and the right, there are domestic political groups for whom any concession toward Iran is seen as a betrayal. This covers not just groups like AIPAC, which maintains strong allegiances with politicians on both sides of the political aisle, but also Evangelical and Christian groups on the right who see any action that looks like a concession toward Iran quite negatively. For politicians who feel obligated to maintain close ties to such groups, especially hard-right Republicans with regard to the “religious right,” mouthing the words of opposition is something that you have to do as a matter of course. Not exactly a profile in courage, I know, but when you have religious groups infusing themselves into a foreign policy debate that’s what happens.

In any event, Congress now has a decision to make. Does it try to do the “popular” thing and push for increased sanctions on Iran at the same time the President and other foreign leaders are trying to work out a longer term deal with Iran, or does it let the process play itself out for now? The wise choice and the politically compelling choice in this situation are not necessarily the same thing.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Middle East, National Security, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. grumpy realist says:

    I bet China is watching all of this with bated breath. If the US can’t negotiate a treaty without the Congress turning around and tearing it down, it really puts the kibosh on stated US power, don’t you say? Our diplomats promise one thing, then Congress whacks them in the shins.

    China would LOVE for us to demonstrate we can’t be depended upon to adhere to treaties we have signed.

  2. jib10 says:

    Who in the world thinks that torpedoing this deal would be popular? This is just beltway bubble talk. In the real world the American people, right and left, are really sick of the people who dragged us into Iraq by lying about atomic weapons trying to drag us into yet more wars by lying some more.

    Really, only inside DC can people who were so completely discredited by being totally wrong still be considered serious people. Let them try. They deserve whats coming to them.

  3. Mu says:

    So, for the first time in how long an American President is actually using money not put up by taxpayers to get something done, and he’s bad for doing so? I think bribing Teheran with their own money is nothing short of brilliant compared to the billions we spend normally for the same result.

  4. Ron Beasley says:

    I have always opposed the Imperial Presidency but the current congress leads me to believe I may have been wrong.

  5. al-Ameda says:

    @grumpy realist:

    If the US can’t negotiate a treaty without the Congress turning around and tearing it down, it really puts the kibosh on stated US power, don’t you say? Our diplomats promise one thing, then Congress whacks them in the shins.

    I hope there are no longer any people who wonder why presidents bypass Congress whenever they can? Honestly, I do not believe this effort to bypass the president is going anywhere, however with this Congress it’s best to assume the most stupid outcome always has a chance of succeeding.

  6. An Interested Party says:

    For years those in Congress have done little to nothing about the Imperial Presidency other than blowing hot air…there’s no reason to think this will change now…

  7. C. Clavin says:

    Some of these are people whose allegiance to Israel is stronger than their allegiance to their own country.
    Some are just mindless Republicans being reflexively obstructionist.
    In either case their actions are inexcusable.
    We are living through a time when one party is intentionally sabotaging the economy …and now under-cutting important, potentially game-changing, foreign policy.
    Incredible. Just incredible.

  8. JohnMcC says:

    The best remark I’ve seen is from (no surprise) Dr Dan Larison at The American Conservative:

    “…Iran hawks would retain more credibility with everyone if they held their fire for a later, more comprehensive agreement, but among other Iran hawks they would lose credibility if they endorsed any deal with Iran. So they denounce the current deal, and they will denounce future agreements in the same terms, because they really are opposed to diplomatic engagement with Iran all together. Besides, Iran hawks have raised the bar so high on what it means to be ‘tough’ on Iran that they are stuck defending ludicrous positions that they were compelled to adopt to confirm their status as a hardliner.”

  9. Tyrell says:

    Secretary Kerry should have offered a trade: they get the “Affordable” Health Care Act. We get a load of genies in bottles and Persian rugs .
    “We will have to pass the treaty so we can find out what is in it”
    “If you like your nuclear program, you can keep it. Period.”

  10. CB says:

    n any event, Congress now has a decision to make. Does it try to do the “popular” thing and push for increased sanctions on Iran at the same time the President and other foreign leaders are trying to work out a longer term deal with Iran, or does it let the process play itself out for now?

    How is this even a question!? I mean, oh my God, how could we have gotten to this point!? Literally smacked my forehead when I read that. Christ.

  11. Neil Hudelson says:


    Dude, the first 7 jokes you cracked about genies in bottles and camels–not funny. Number 8 though? Now it’s getting hilarious. You can’t overuse a classic, right?

  12. John425 says:

    @C. Clavin: “We are living through a time when one party is intentionally sabotaging the economy …and now under-cutting important, potentially game-changing, foreign policy.”

    Damn Democrats!
    BTW: This Roman Catholic supports Israel’s right to exist. Too bad that bothers you, Cliffie.

    I know I can expect an anti-Catholic screed after this one. The Obamacrats announced today that they will be closing the American embassy in the Vatican because they think it is “unsafe” for Americans.

  13. Latino_in_Boston says:

    Of course they are. On just about every potential policy improvement over the status quo, this Congress has opted to either do nothing or to block what would be an improvement. So if they torpedo this one too, it will at least be consistent.

  14. An Interested Party says:

    This Roman Catholic supports Israel’s right to exist.

    Umm, who is arguing against that right…

  15. C. Clavin says:

    Israel has a right to exist…but they have become a rogue nation…supported by the same Neo-Cons who gave us Iraq…a blunder which made Iran stronger than anything Obama could do.

  16. T says:

    @John425: It’s only unsafe for the younger ones, of course.

  17. beth says:


    The Obamacrats announced today that they will be closing the American embassy in the Vatican

    Just like Ireland, the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, and Israel…. I guess Obama got to all those countries too and worked his voodoo on them. Is there nothing you guys don’t feel personally persecuted about?

  18. Tyrell says:

    There still remains the serious issue of those nuclear armed flying carpets.

  19. C. Clavin says:

    Actually they are not “closing” the embassy…they are moving it.
    But don’t let facts get in the way of your hatred.
    John 4:25 refers to the coming of Christ. I don’t think he would look fondly on your attitude towards your neighbor.

  20. merl says:

    @An Interested Party: He is. With the voices in his head.

  21. Woody says:


    Excellent reference – so spot on, as Dr Larison often is. Reminds me of the “to a hammer, everything is a nail” bit.

    So much of this is affected by the unique position of Israel among our political class (might be the last remaining major bipartisan issue). The U.S. friendship with Israel has become extremely complex, particularly since the ascendancy of the Israeli right + ultra-Orthodox coalition, and PM Netanyahu has been rather public with his dismay over the Iran deal. It’s fine for Congressfolk to share opinions (though I seem to recall a time in 2003 when this was often called treason), but choosing to legislate as a direct response to the President is remarkable, considering Congress is unable to perform even their most rudimentary domestic responsibilities.

    As Dr Larison points out in his post, the ‘temporary’ status of this deal offers an opportunity to test Iranian intentions without making a full commitment – diplomatically, militarily, or financially. Seems like this is a case of reasonable leadership to me.

  22. anjin-san says:

    This Roman Catholic supports Israel’s right to exist

    I suspect everyone here feels the same way. We just don’t support Israel’s right to set our foriegn poicy.

  23. JohnMcC says:

    @John425: To someone who is sure they are being victimized, everything looks like persecution. Having an embassy at the Vatican and another embassy in Italy is an example of historical stupidity; are we pretending that there still are Papal States?

    Wrapping one’s identity in the scriptures, which I suppose (as Mr Clavin does) is the intent of you moniker, always reminds me of Matthew 6, “…you are not to be like the hypocrits, for they love to stand and pray in the synogogues and on the street corners so they can be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret and your Father who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

    If you are trying to persuade this motley crew that you represent a loving, Godly point of view — we would be persuaded by the content of your messages better that the tag you chose so effortlessly.

  24. grumpy realist says:

    @John425: Where did anyone say we didn’t believe in Israel’s right to exist?

    That’s why AIPAC and their useful idiots are losing power. Any deviation from full-throated support for whatever lunatic idea the ultra-Likudniks are pushing is treated like the Final Solution, round II.

    Ever heard about the Boy who Cried Wolf? There’s a reason why people stopped listening to him. Treating Iran as a reasonable partner in negotiations does not equal dropping a nuke on Jerusalem and you just make yourself look silly by acting as if it does.

  25. C. Clavin says:

    This is off-topic but relates to John 4:25 comments…I’m really liking this new Pope…he may actually be a Christian: