Over the past several weeks, the White House has been waging an increasingly nasty fight to stop congressional action to put new Iran sanctions in place in the event that the current round of nuclear talks fail. Although 58 senators have co-sponsored the proposed legislation that would tighten the restrictions on doing business with the tyrannical Islamist regime, the Obama administration seems to have acquired the upper hand in the battle. This is largely because of specious arguments claiming those who want to give the president more leverage in the next round of negotiations are actually seeking war rather than a diplomatic solution when the reality is just the opposite. The only hope for a deal that would avert an outcome in which the U.S. would have to choose between the use of force and a nuclear Iran is the adoption of tougher sanctions that would force the ayatollahs to give up their nuclear dreams.
But the current uphill struggle by a majority of the Senate to ensure that the end of the current talks doesn’t lead to a collapse of the sanctions may be only a sideshow to the real fight over Iran that lies ahead in 2014. As the Washington Free Beacon reports, the administration is thinking ahead to the next step in the debate over Iran and exploring the possibility of lifting sanctions without congressional approval.
Congressional insiders say that the White House is worried Congress will exert oversight of the deal and demand tougher nuclear restrictions on Tehran in exchange for sanctions relief.
Top White House aides have been “talking about ways to do that [lift sanctions] without Congress and we have no idea yet what that means,” said one senior congressional aide who works on sanctions. “They’re looking for a way to lift them by fiat, overrule U.S. law, drive over the sanctions, and declare that they are lifted.”
Although only Congress has the power to revoke the sanctions it has enacted, this is not a far-fetched scenario. It is entirely possible that the president may wish to end sanctions on his own. That could come as the result of a nuclear deal that failed to satisfy those who rightly worry about the possibility of an agreement that left Iran with its nuclear infrastructure intact. Or it might be part of a further effort to appease Tehran by scaling back sanctions in order to entice it to sign a deal. And the president believes he can achieve these ends by executive action that would come dangerously close to unconstitutional behavior, but for which Congress might have no remedy.
The key to any unilateral action by the president on sanctions is effective enforcement. It has long been understood by insiders that the U.S. government has only selectively enforced the existing sanctions on Iran. In 2010, the New York Times reported that more than 10,000 exemptions had already been granted by the Treasury Department to companies wishing to transact business with Iran. Since then there have been worries that the administration has been slow to open new cases by which suspicious economic activity with Iran could be proscribed.
As the Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted in a paper published in November 2013, the president can legitimize a policy of non-enforcement by the granting of waivers that could effectively gut any and all sanctions enacted by Congress. The only effective check on such a decision would be the political firestorm that would inevitably follow a relaxation of the sanctions that would be accurately viewed as a craven offering to the ayatollahs and also an affront to both Congress and America’s Middle East allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia that rightly fear a nuclear Iran.
The administration has already made clear on other contentious issues, such as the application of immigration law, that it will only enforce laws with which it agrees. This is clearly unconstitutional, but as we have already seen with the president’s unilateral actions on immigration, Congress cannot prevent him from doing what he likes in these matters. The same might be true on Iran sanctions, especially if he is prepared to double down on inflammatory arguments falsely labeling sanctions proponents as warmongers.
Having begun the process of loosening sanctions on Iran with the interim deal signed in November and seemingly intent on promoting a new détente with Tehran, it requires no great leap of imagination to envision the next step in this process. Unless the president produces a deal that truly ends the Iranian nuclear threat—something that would require the dismantling of Iran’s facilities and ensuring it could not possibly continue enriching uranium or building plutonium plants—a confrontation with Congress is likely. In that event, it appears probable that the president will choose to run roughshod over the will of Congress and the rule of law.