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Senate Approves Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, Impacting the Chances of a Final Agreement with Iran

On Friday, May 8, the Senate overwhelmingly approved the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which would give Congress a role in approving any agreement with Iran concerning its nuclear program. The Senate approved the bill 98-1, with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK) the only dissenting vote. The House of Representatives could vote on the legislation as early as this week.

As discussed in a previous post, on April 2, 2015 representatives of the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia (collectively, the “P5+1” countries) announced that they had agreed with Iran on the Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The parties now have until June 30, 2015 to reach a final agreement. One of the major open issues is what sanctions on Iran would be removed and when. Complicating this negotiation, especially following passage of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, is President Obama’s authority to lift U.S. sanctions on his own authority.

Under the legislation passed by the Senate, Congress would have 30 days to review the agreement and the proposed sanctions relief plan (longer under certain circumstances). Congress may then enact a joint resolution in favor of the agreement, enact a joint resolution opposing the agreement, or take no action. If Congress approves the agreement or takes no action, the President may then grant sanctions relief in line with the authority that currently exists under relevant statutes. If Congress votes to disapprove of the agreement, the President can veto the joint resolution and, if Congress fails to override the veto, he can still move forward with sanctions relief. However, if that veto is overridden by a 2/3 vote of both houses of Congress, then the President would be prohibited from lifting sanctions.

The text of this bill was carefully negotiated by the White House and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) and Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-MD). The President threatened to veto the original version of the bill, which was more restrictive, but acquiesced in the face of legislative opposition and has continued to threaten to veto any legislation that deviated substantially from the compromise version passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This compromise was nearly derailed by Republican Senators who sought to add amendments on the floor, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), whose provision would have required Iran to recognize Israel as part of any agreement, and Sen. Tom Cotton, whose provision would have imposed stricter inspection provisions on Iran.

In the House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has indicated that he may bring up the legislation for a vote before the full House this week. Assuming it passes, Members of Congress are already preparing for the next round. 150 House Democrats sent a letter to the President urging him to find a negotiated solution with Iran. Meanwhile, pro-Israel groups and Senators, such as Mark Kirk (R-IL), are beginning the process of finding 67 Senate votes to overcome a presidential veto.

It is still uncertain whether the P5+1 countries can reach a final agreement with Iran by June 30, but this new reality of Congressional review will affect the negotiations since it will not be possible for Iran to receive full and immediate sanctions relief as it has publicly insisted.  This could derail the entire process, and, even if a deal is reached, a high stakes legislative process will play out over the summer with the prospect of a joint resolution of disapproval and a vote to override the President’s veto. This could lead to the possible result that the United Nations Security Council could vote to lift sanctions while U.S. sanctions on Iran would remain in place.