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The congressional Iran bill, explained

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The White House announced Tuesday that it is now prepared to sign a modified version of the Corker-Menendez Bipartisan Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, a piece of legislation that in its original form at least was seen as a poison pill to kill the Iran deal.

The Obama administration's decision to accept the revised bill is in part simply a bow to political reality — they fear that if they resisted, they would lose — but it also reflects some substantive changes that were made to the bill due to the timely intervention of Maryland Democratic Senator Ben Cardin.

In the wake of the deal comes a cloud of spin, with the administration arguing that the modifications make the bill much more palatable, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) arguing that nothing has been given up, some members of Congress touting an important gain for the system of checks and balances, others alleging massive intrusion into presidential power, and some conservatives still vowing to kill the deal.

In the end, however, the most important thing almost certainly isn't spin — it's the question of whether Corker has created a mechanism by which Congress will actually block the deal, or whether he's just created a venue for Congress to posture against the deal.

What does the legislation do?

The bill sets out a specific mechanism through which Congress can express disapproval of the final text of a nuclear deal with Iran.

These are the key provisions:

  • The administration must formally submit to Congress the final agreement with Iran and the five other world powers that are party to the talks (known as the P5+1), when and if such an agreement is reached.
  • This sets off a 30-day period during which the president is prohibited from waiving any sanctions, regardless of what he's agreed to with the Iranians.
  • If Congress passes a resolution disapproving of the agreement, the sanctions must stay in place for at least 12 additional days.
  • If the president vetoes the disapproval resolution, the sanctions must stay in place for 10 more days (a total of 52) and then he can lift them.
  • If the president signs the disapproval resolution — or, more realistically, if Congress passes the resolution with a veto-proof majority — then sanctions cannot be lifted.
  • If the final deal is not submitted by July 9, the review period is extended to 60 days.
  • Every 90 days, the president must certify to Congress that Iran is complying with the terms of the final agreement.
  • The president must also make a series of official reports to Congress on a range of issues outside the scope of the agreement, including Iran's support for terrorism and its ballistic missile program.

How is this different from the original version of the bill?

There are two main differences.

One is that the initial congressional review period has been cut from 60 days to 30 days, as long as the agreement is submitted to Congress by July 9.

The other is that the presidential certification of Iranian good behavior is now limited to certification that Iran is complying with the terms of the nuclear deal. The earlier requirement that the president must certify Iran was not involved in supporting terrorism was seen as a poison pill, by forcibly expanding the scope of a deal that negotiators had deliberately limited to nuclear issues.

What is the point of this legislation?

It's a bit hard to say.

In a literal sense, what the bill does is ensure that when a final deal is reached Congress will have the ability to state that it thinks the deal is bad and should not be implemented. Obama will have the ability to veto any legislation preventing implementation of the deal, and Congress will have the ability to try to override that veto.

But in a literal sense, this doesn't actually change anything. Imagine a world in which the Corker-Menendez bill had never been written. Now imagine that a final deal is reached between Iran and the P5+1 group. Now imagine that Congress reads the terms of the deal and doesn't like it. Congress inherently has the constitutional authority to pass a law blocking implementation of the deal, the president inherently has the constitutional authority to veto that bill, and Congress inherently has the constitutional authority to override that veto if two-thirds of the members of both Houses want to.

Corker-Menendez, in either its original or its modified form, does not actually change this reality. All it does is lard on some formal certifications and create the 30-day waiting period for lifting sanctions.

For at least some Republicans, the real goal in pushing this law appears to be to scuttle the deal itself. Naturally, they are disinclined to come right out and say this, but, helpfully, leading neoconservative intellectual Bill Kristol has been tweeting frankly about the situation.

On the other hand, some Democrats — including Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia — seem to be sincerely operating on the premise that it's important for Congress to be more deeply involved in the decision-making around this. On the third hand, there are plenty of Democratic members of Congress who don't have especially strong feelings about foreign policy substance but who felt pressure, for example from pro-Israel groups, to distance themselves from the White House.

Will this bill kill the Iran deal?

Probably not. The White House thinks it won't, and the deal's leading opponents concur.

Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association also doesn't think it will sink the deal, even though he also doesn't like the bill.

But it's important to be clear that whether it ultimately kills the deal will be decided by Iranians as well as Americans, and nobody in the US Congress or media really knows what Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini is thinking.

The basic mechanism through which something like Corker-Menendez could kill the deal is by making it look like Barack Obama isn't a credible negotiator. Iranian hard-liners who are inherently opposed to nuclear talks could point to Obama's problems with Congress to make the case that there's no sense in making concessions to the international community when the American government clearly has no ability to deliver on its side of the bargain. That has been a concern throughout the negotiations process, and one that was raised previously, for example, by Senator Tom Cotton's letter to Iranian leaders warning them against taking a deal.

Through this lens, the modification to the certification provisions is potentially very important. The original version of the certification would have suggested that Congress is prepared to add new conditions that are outside the scope of the official nuclear talks. But the new version of the bill doesn't really say anything other than "Congress will block implementation of the deal if Congress blocks implementation of the deal."

Will Congress block implementation of the deal?

Who knows? It would be very unusual for large numbers of Democrats to turn against the president and deal him a humiliating defeat by overriding a presidential veto and scuttling a signature diplomatic achievement. But stranger things have happened.

The fact that Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, Harry Reid's designated successor as the Democratic Party leader in the Senate, seems to want to kill the deal indicates that partisanship per se will only get the White House so far with Democratic senators.

It's notable, however, that an earlier bill co-sponsored by Menendez and Senator Mark Kirk that would have clearly scuttled negotiations by immediately imposing new sanctions ultimately failed. That's a decent indication that many senators, though perhaps interested in the politics of toughness or congressional prerogatives, are profoundly hesitant to out-and-out kill a bill. On the other hand, some Democrats on Capitol Hill believe the atmosphere of toxic partisanship that Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) created with an ill-conceived letter to Iranian officials was decisive in killing that legislation, and circumstances may differ in the future.

It's also important to distinguish between Democrats who would like to cast an official vote disapproving of the bill as a matter of political positioning, and Democrats who actually would want to see a presidential veto overridden. That's why much of the action is likely to take place in the House of Representatives, where relatively few Democrats hold vulnerable seats and decision-making will be driven more by what members actually want to see happen than by narrow electoral considerations.

Here, a pivotal actor will be Representative Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Nancy Pelosi's number two and a longtime ally of pro-Israel groups. Hoyer's initial statement on the deal was cagey and noncommittal, saying he looks "forward to being briefed in greater detail on the specifics of this framework agreement to ensure that it accomplishes these objectives." He then pronounced himself "pleased" with the Cardin-Corker compromise, and emphasized that his final position is going to hinge on the specifics of the agreement.

"This is a highly technical process," says Hoyer's statement, "one that requires careful analysis and oversight, and I look forward to reviewing any final agreement once presented to Congress."