What we learned from the Corker-Menendez tussle

On Tuesday evening, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) moved to end debate on the Corker-Menendez bill seeking to give Congress some leverage in a final Iran deal. As Politico noted:

McConnell told Republicans there that he intended to wrap up work on the bill so that the House can pass it next week. Despite GOP senators’ desires for votes on [Sen. Marco] Rubio’s Israel provision as well as amendments on the release of Americans held in Iran and requiring that Congress approve of any deal with Iran, there was little dissent when McConnell finally laid out his plan to his caucus.

“We ought to complete this legislation,” said Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who’d been pressing for a vote on Rubio’s Israel provision. “This place has changed a lot from the Harry Reid days. We ought to get stuff done.”

Whether this week or next, the bill will likely pass overwhelmingly and go to the House. “I believe we have a strong, bipartisan majority prepared to advance legislation that will guarantee Congress–on behalf of the American people–will have the opportunity to review any nuclear agreement with Iran while restricting the president’s ability to immediately waive congressional sanctions,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told Right Turn. “The sooner we enact this bill, the sooner we can send a clear signal to Iran that Congress will play a role, which will give our negotiators a stronger hand at the table.”

So what does this episode tell us?

A small segment of the GOP caucus still thinks it’s in the minority, since for freshmen senators, that’s all they have known. Threatening to wreck a bipartisan bill, embarrass leadership and maneuver the other side into taking hard votes are minority party stunts. Thankfully, most of the GOP Senate has become disgusted with such conduct and wants to move the ball forward, showing that Congress has the capacity to work its will. When once being obstreperous earned you kudos, figuring out how to move good (albeit not perfect) legislation is now the goal. That is a huge improvement over how the Senate has behaved in recent years.

Moreover, although Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Rubio (R-Fla.) distracted the media with an intra-party fight, passage of the bill will return a modicum of bipartisanship on Iran. No matter how President Obama spins its, there are deep reservations on both sides of the aisle regarding the framework, the terms of which remain in dispute but which tell us just how much Obama has caved on key points.

Furthermore, Corker and other leaders should make clear once again that this is the beginning of a more direct role for Congress in Iran policy. “After passing the Corker bill, Congress should clearly establish the standards by which a final deal will be judged,” an official of a pro-Israel group told me. “Through extensive hearings and other actions, Congress must condition the environment for the rejection of a bad deal.”

As we have suggested, Republicans can begin immediately with oversight hearings so as to force the administration to justify the concessions it has already made. Congress needs to go through the framework point by point to question the administration as to why each deviation from prior positions is an acceptable move. The administration should also be forced to clarify whether at the end of 10 or 12 years’ time Iran’s breakout time will be zero. If the administration contends the deal will transform the nature of the regime (so things will be fine on the day Iran achieves breakout) it should provide any intelligence or other data to prove this is the case. If not, we are agreeing to give a despotic, Islamic terrorist state an improved economy, sanctions relief and the bomb.

Last year Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies recommended, “If a final nuclear agreement between the P5+1 and Iran does not meet a series of parameters that already has strong bipartisan support in Congress, the House and Senate should defend American sanctions against Iran and resist pressure to trade sanctions relief for a bad deal. However, should an acceptable agreement be reached that fully addresses Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, Congress must play a role, in cooperation with the Obama administration, to construct and oversee a smart sanctions architecture of effective enforcement and relief.” As we have suggested, that means defining now what an acceptable deal will look like, not only to establish a benchmark for permanent sanctions relief but also to set the stage for the up-or-down vote Congress will get pursuant to Corker-Menendez.

In Congress, there is little dispute as to the minimum terms for a “good deal,” because once upon a time both the United Nations and the administration laid out appropriately tough criteria. Congress has already recognized these in prior legislation. First, Iran should “dismantle Iran’s illicit nuclear infrastructure, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and facilities, the heavy water reactor and production plant at Arak, and any nuclear weapon components and technology, so that Iran is precluded from a nuclear breakout capability and prevented from pursuing both uranium and plutonium pathways to a nuclear weapon.” That is from 2013 sanctions language that enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support. Likewise, requiring Iran to come into compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions, to resolve satisfactorily issues with the International Atomic Energy Agency, to come clean on past military dimensions of the program and to submit to true anywhere/anytime inspections must reaffirmed as the essence of an acceptable deal. Anything that does not meet that bare minimum should result in a tightening of sanctions.

Beyond the nuclear issue, Congress should move swiftly to ensure that a full array of sanctions be imposed for continued support for terrorism and other acts of international aggression. Those, in light of Iran’s recent conduct, should be imposed now. After all, these issues we are told are distinct from the nuclear talks. In imposing additional sanctions for Iran’s non-nuclear activity, Congress should not make the same mistake it did with nuclear-related sanctions; this time any temporary or permanent sanctions relief must come to Congress for a vote.

In sum, Congress cannot stop Obama from making a bad deal, but it can agree what a bad deal is, seek now to preemptively rule out concessions and restructure our Iran policy so that, to be blunt, sanctions the president might lift because of a flawed nuclear deal reappear in sanctions based on Iran’s international behavior. If this seems like a back-door maneuver to deprive Iran of the benefits of Obama’s atrocious negotiating collapse, it is.

UPDATE: McConnell in remarks Wednesday said, “This is a bipartisan bill based on an important principle: that the American people, through the Congress they elect, deserve a say on one of the most important issues of our time. It would require that any agreement reached with Iran be submitted to Congress for review. It would require that Congress be given time to hold hearings, and to take a vote to approve or disprove of the agreement before congressional sanctions could be lifted. And it would give Congress more power to rapidly re-impose sanctions if Iran does cheat.” He recognized criticism of the bill, but explained why it was essential to move ahead. “Many wish the bill was even stronger. I don’t disagree with them,” he said. “But this is legislation worthy of our support. It offers the best chance to provide the American people, and the Congress they elect, with power to weigh in on a vital issue. And we will pursue other opportunities to address Iran’s full-spectrum campaign to increase its sphere of influence in the broader Middle East, too.”

This article was written by Jennifer Rubin for The Washington Post on May 6, 2015. Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.