Most discussion of the NDAA on this blog focuses on detainee-related provisions, and a familiar argument is that some of these provisions inappropriately tie the President’s hands, stripping the executive branch of needed flexibility. A somewhat similar debate is playing out elsewhere in the NDAA, where on Friday the Senate approved – 94-0 – new sanctions aimed at Iran’s energy and shipping sectors that the White House complains are unnecessary, ineffective, and diplomatically counterproductive. This would be the latest in a series of Iran sanctions recently imposed by Congress over Administration objections.
This provision could still get revised as the NDAA bill moves forward, but I flag it now for several reasons. First, it generally illustrates that for all the foreign affairs powers of the modern President, when Congress decides to exercise its powers and the executive branch doesn’t persuade it to back off (especially when the President lacks credibility among some powerful members of Congress or powerful constituencies or fails to engage early and aggressively enough with them), the executive branch can find itself quite boxed in. Second, it specifically illustrates that the difficult multi-dimensional chess that the Obama Administration is playing on this issue with Iran, Israel, the European Union, Russia, China, and other international players also has a congressional relations dimension, and its play along this dimension will not only be important in applying coercive pressure on Iran but down the road could be very important and constraining to any bargain that might be struck with Iran (under some optimistic scenarios).