What happens next with nuclear agreement?

Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said Tuesday he will vote against the Iran nuclear deal.File photo
Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said Tuesday he will vote against the Iran nuclear deal.
File photo

Congress has less than a month left to review the Iran nuclear agreement before it comes to an expected vote in mid-September. Despite opponents lobbying hard and spending millions to sway undecided lawmakers, President Barack Obama may still get his way, the Senate majority leader said recently.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), according to the Associated Press, told a business group in his home state on Monday that Obama has “a great likelihood of success” in pushing the Iran nuclear agreement forward.

Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act passed earlier this year, Congress has 60 days to review and vote on a deal. A vote on a joint resolution of disapproval is expected to take place Sept. 17.

It’s generally accepted that Republicans have enough support to vote down the deal initially, but Obama has promised a swift veto. To sustain a veto, 34 Democrat votes in the Senate and 146 in the House are needed.


As McConnell put it quite simply, “[Obama] can win by getting one-third plus one of either house.”

On Tuesday, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) became the second Senate Democrat, the other being Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), to oppose the Iran nuclear agreement. Menendez called the current agreement “a very expensive alarm system” that in his estimation was a “far cry from significant dismantling” of Iran’s nuclear program. Earlier in the day, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) became the 21st Democrat to back the deal.

As of presstime, no Republicans have come out in favor of the deal. To overcome a Democrat-led filibuster of a motion disapproving the deal, six Democrats would need to join with the GOP. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) the one Republican who considered supporting the deal said recently he will vote no.

Said McConnell, “The campaign of the president to get it approved will be entirely among Democrats, probably Democrats in very safe Democratic seats whose only fear of re-election would probably be getting a primary.”

If opponents of the deal are able to overcome a presidential veto, what are the consequences to the United States for rejecting the deal?

No one can say for sure, but Robert Einhorn a senior fellow in the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative and the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at The Brookings Institution in Washington, examined likely outcomes in an extensive paper published this month.

Under INARA, if Congress disapproves the deal, then Obama is prohibited from issuing waivers needed to lift sanctions, a key component of the United States’ commitment under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, thus removing Iran’s incentive to keep its own commitments.

In the short term, Einhorn wrote, the president could not enact limited sanctions relief required by the Joint Plan of Action reached in November 2013. The release of $700 million to Iran each month from its estimated $100 billion in frozen overseas accounts would stop.

It would become increasingly difficult to enforce sanctions on the purchase of Iranian crude oil. Since 2012, United States oil sanctions compelled countries to reduce their imports of Iranian crude oil every six months. Under the JPOA, countries were allowed to stop their import reduction without risk of sanctions. Reimplementing sanctions would impact India, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, and most notably, China, the largest purchaser of Iranian crude oil.

China might offer up token sanctions to keep the United States happy, wrote Einhorn, but it is far more likely that China would find a workaround or completely ignore the United States sanctions. Other countries would follow China’s lead.

At the same time, the United States would be trying to enforce other existing sanctions. Some major international financial institutions, Einhorn predicted, might get on board rather than risk being cut off from the United States financial system, but the temptation of entry into Iranian markets may be too much for European allies.

The European Union and European governments might not crack down on sanctions-busters, forcing the United States to become a worldwide sanctions enforcer, setting up a scenario where the United States government could impose sanctions on allies in pursuit of compliance.

“And as the ranks of sanctions evaders grew and as the defectors came to believe there was strength in numbers, such a campaign could become increasingly confrontational, futile and self-defeating, especially if the sanctioned entities had substantial economic links to the United States,” wrote Einhorn.

If enforcing existing sanctions seems like a tall order, imagine trying to corral allies into imposing more sanctions — a nearly impossible feat, in Einhorn’s view. In the meantime, Iran would likely begin expanding its nuclear capacity with the justification that the United States did not hold up its end of the deal. Then it would be harder to get partners back to the negotiating table, and even if the United States succeeded in restarting talks, Iran’s nuclear program would be farther along than it is today.

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