The Obama Administration-Zarif Disagreement About What the Iran Deal Will Do, and the Implications for the Iran Review Bill

By Jack Goldsmith
Thursday, April 30, 2015, 10:37 AM

One side is wrong.

The Obama administration has made plain that the deal it is negotiating with Iran will be non-binding under international law, will not be converted to a binding international agreement that affects U.S. sanctions via Security Council approval, and will not be implemented until Iran demonstrates compliance. Moreover, under the Iran Review Bill, which the administration supports, the President will be disabled from lifting sanctions for 30-82 days, depending on the circumstances. (If the Iran Review Bill does not pass, the President can lift sanctions whenever he likes, with proper certifications.)

But yesterday, according to Josh Rogin, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told a New York audience a quite different story. Zarif stated that no matter what Congress does, President Obama must eliminate sanctions within days or weeks of the deal. Zarif also said that the Security Council vote would obligate the United States to lift sanctions, and bind Obama and his successors under international law.   Rogin paraphrases Zarif as saying that the “United Nations Security Council would pass a resolution lifting all UN sanctions and requiring Obama to stop enforcing all of the U.S. sanctions immediately.” He then quotes Zarif as follows: “The American president is bound by international law, whether they like it or not. And international law requires the United States live up to any agreement this government enters into,” he said.

The Obama administration position on the deal is simply not compatible with what Zarif says about the deal. One side has to be wrong. If Congress is worried that Zarif rather than the administration is more accurately describing the deal, then that is a reason, I think, to support to Iran Review bill. That bill is the only mechanism on the table that would delay the President from immediately waiving U.S. sanctions. The delay would give Congress time to assess the deal, look at what the Security Council does, and figure out if it (Congress) wants to (and has the super-majority votes to) stop the President from lifting U.S. sanctions. True, passage of the Iran bill raises the political stakes for Republicans.  If Congress cannot during the review period overcome a presidential veto to stop the lifting of sanctions, the President will look stronger and could claim extra legitimacy for the deal if Congress formally looks at the deal and does not object.

But if Zarif is right about what the deal will look like, then without the Iran Review bill’s statutory delay period, Congress will have no mechanism to stop the President from implementing the deal quickly. The most hawkish Republicans (Senator Cotton and others) view the Iran Review bill as a political trap. But if they succeed in killing the bill, they will also have killed the only realistic (though slim) opportunity Congress has to stop Obama from implementing the deal by lifting U.S. sanctions if it turns out Congress does not like the deal. And of course if Congress does not act before Obama lifts the sanctions (a possibility that only the Iran Review bill enables), it will have a much harder time re-imposing the sanctions later, as will the next President, no matter what his or her views.