The Complicated Politics of the Iran Review Act (And Why I Think They Cut In Favor of the Act)

By Jack Goldsmith
Tuesday, July 14, 2015, 7:49 PM

When critics of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act are confronted with the fact that the Act delays the President's ability to implement U.S. sanctions relief under the Iran Deal for 60 days, they sometimes switch to arguments about why the politics of the Review Act are nonetheless bad. I am skeptical of the Deal, but I think the politics of the Review Act are good, on balance. Here is why.

The Iran Review Act achieves three political pluses.

First, it creates the possibility that Congress will reject the deal with veto-proof super-majorities. The chances of this happening are slim. But slim is better than none.

Second, the Iran Review Act will spark a more focused and robust debate about the merits and demerits of the Iran deal than would have happened in its absence. Everyone will be much more informed about the deal and its implications. Debate about such an important change in U.S. foreign policy is an intrinsic good in our democracy, even if it comes to naught in the short term.

Third, the Iran Deal will have broad implications for U.S. foreign policy long after President Obama has passed from the scene, but when many current members of Congress are still on the scene. To ensure proper accountability for the consequences of the Deal, it is important that members of Congress be on record voting for or against the Deal. By forcing a debate and almost certainly a vote, the Iran Review Act makes Congress’s institutional cowardice and its members’ opportunistic fence-riding much harder.

As far as I can tell, critics of the Iran Deal who are also critics of the Iran Review Act offer two reasons why they dislike the Act.

First, the President will claim that Congress approved the Deal if Congress does not kill the Deal. Relatedly, if the chances of overriding the veto are zero, opponents of the deal would have been better off having no association with it (i.e. not being forced to consider it at all), for the mere association legitimates the Deal even if Congress rejects it. I disagree. I don’t think Congress’s consideration of the Deal can be spun this way if Congress rejects the Deal in a bill that the President is forced to veto. The spin might work, in some quarters, if Congress considers the Deal and does nothing, depending on why Congress does nothing. I think the only chance that Congress does nothing is if the Senate is unable to break a filibuster on a resolution of disapproval. This might happen, but such a “nothing” would be preceded by a vote to break a filibuster that would properly be seen as a vote on the merits of the deal.” Put another way, Obama owns this thing, and few will be confused into thinking Congress somehow also owns it, even if it technically does “nothing.” So I view this political downside as small to nil.

Second, and relatedly, the scale of the President’s political victory in pulling of the Iran Deal will be greater if Congress considers it and cannot defeat it. This might be true even if the President is forced to veto a bill, and it is probably true if Congress does nothing. I discount this downside to the Iran Review Act, however, because I think that the President’s “victory” with the Iran Deal will be determined primarily by what happens in the world over the medium and long term, and not by whether Congress can defeat it in September. But I acknowledge that the Iran Review Act raises the political stakes and thus will likely bring the President an ineffable political or reputational benefit if Congress cannot defeat it.

I believe that, at bottom, this last point is the main reason why some critics of the Iran Deal detest the Iran Review Act. Even giving this concern its due, I think the three pluses I outlined above overwhelm this potential downside. But I understand how others might see things differently.