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UNSC Action Closes Door on Pursuit of Better Iran Deal

In making the case for the nuclear agreement with Iran, President Obama has favored one main argument: this deal is preferable to the other choices available. He challenged critics to come forward with their “preferred alternative.”

Although Congress has yet to review the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the U.S.-led action this week by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to pass a resolution endorsing the deal basically and unnecessarily shuts the door on any changes to improve the deal that was negotiated by the United States and other world powers with Iran.

The UNSC action starts the process of suspending and, eventually, terminating all UNSC sanctions against Iran, which effectively precludes the possibility of continued international economic pressure on Tehran in pursuit of a better deal.

U.S. sanctions would be diminished without UNSC resolutions and EU support

The foundation of the punishing economic sanctions regime that brought Iran to the table was laid nine years ago with the passage of UNSC resolution 1696. Since then a complex structure of restrictions on business, trade, and financing with Iran has been erected by the United Nations, European Union, and United States. Although U.S. sanctions might be the most far-reaching and comprehensive of all these measures, their impact would be significantly diminished without the underpinning of the UNSC resolutions and the support of the EU. While the United States can prevent U.S. firms from doing business with Iran, it is much more difficult to impose its will on foreign firms. UNSC and EU multilateral sanctions extended the breadth of the restrictions on Iran, cutting it off from a significant portion of the world market. Thus, they are also the thread that can unravel the entire sanctions structure.

This week, the UNSC pulled on that thread.

The JCPOA trades time-limited restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program for the permanent lifting of all nuclear-related sanctions against Iran. The deal spells out a complicated process and timing for lifting all those sanctions. The UNSC on Monday took the first step in that process by adopting a resolution, introduced last week by the United States, that will result in the suspending and eventual repeal of all of the sanctions it had previously put in place.

Does Congress still have a role to play?

According to the timeline and terminology of the JCPOA, this UNSC action begins the 90-day clock to “Adoption Day.” Now set for October 18, 2015, “Adoption Day” is the moment at which the United States and EU have to begin the process of lifting their own sanctions against Iran. In the case of the United States, that would occur by the granting of presidential waiver to effectively cease implementation of all sanctions on the books, but keep, for now, the actual sanctions in place. However, under the terms of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, passed by bipartisan majorities of Congress in April, the president is barred from providing any sanctions relief to Iran until Congress spends 60 days reviewing the deal and either votes to approve it or, more likely, fails to disapprove of it with a veto-proof majority.

By acting first, the UNSC all but obviates the congressional vote. Even if lawmakers were to come to the conclusion that the deal is a bad one and manage to garner enough votes against it to override President Obama’s veto threat, the ground is now set for almost all international sanctions against Iran to lapse, regardless of U.S. action.

This sequencing angered lawmakers, leading Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker and Ranking Member Ben Cardin to send a letter to President Obama, urging him, to no avail, to “postpone the vote at the United Nations until after Congress considers this agreement.” The arguments of these congressional critics gain even greater merit when the eclipsing of Congress by the UNSC is compared to provisions of the JCPOA that allow Iran’s parliament to have final say on whether to consent to the deal’s enhanced inspections regime. Indeed, deference to national political processes does not appear to have been equally distributed among the negotiating parties.

Yet, proponents of the deal and the UNSC action can point out that the resolution passed this week does not yet lift any sanctions. That does not happen until “Implementation Day,” when Iran is certified to have met all of its obligations under the deal. Thus, when Congress votes on the JCPOA, the entire sanctions regime will still be in place. Lawmakers’ ability to weigh in before the deal goes into effect, some might argue, will not have been trampled.

This is technically true and should be the basis for a more cooperative and constructive engagement between the Congress and White House. Since the deal will not have yet gone into effect and sanctions not yet been lifted when lawmakers cast votes to decide what they think of the JCPOA, the president could interpret their potential disapproval as a mandate to return to the negotiating table and hammer out a deal that better addresses U.S. national security interests. Such a process would give each branch a chance to play their full and proper roles, but it is not likely to transpire.

While it is true that UNSC sanctions have not been revoked yet and will not have been revoked when Congress votes, the process for their eventual termination has already been set in motion. With the president having already threatened to veto a motion of disapproval, it is hard to believe that there is a realistic scenario in which congressional rejection of the deal would result in further diplomacy and UNSC (and EU) sanctions staying on. At this point, after the UNSC action, the lifting of international sanctions is predominantly in Iranian hands. Regardless of what the U.S. Congress does, Iran need only comply with the deal initially to automatically trigger UNSC sanctions relief. Whether it would decide to continue observing the deal, should U.S. sanctions remain in place, is a different matter.

Thus, the passage of this UNSC resolution not only begins the unraveling of the sanctions regime but also precludes the possibility of diplomatic attempts to renegotiate the deal with Iran. While congressional critics have been, and most likely will continue to be, willing to impose additional sanctions on Iran in order to exert more leverage and obtain greater concessions, without the foundation of the UNSC-imposed sanctions any U.S. attempts to increase pressure on Iran would have little impact, even if they could pass Congress and be implemented by the president.

By structuring the implementation process to begin at the UNSC, the United States, its P5+1 partners, and Iran have made the central argument in favor of the deal—that there is no other alternative—come true and, thereby, limited the relevance of the U.S. congressional review process.

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