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No, Obama Can’t Salvage The Iran Deal Without The Senate

If the president ignores Congress and executes his Iran deal no matter what, it’s just going create an even bigger problem for Democrats.


It seems unlikely that Congress will deep-six Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. But just in case, the administration floated a trial balloon in Politico this week, detailing how he could work around congressional opposition to help Islamic Republic:

Obama has broad powers to act alone — even against the will of Congress — say experts and former administration officials familiar with internal deliberations. Using his executive branch authority, Obama could effectively halt many U.S. sanctions on Iran, they say, in a bid to persuade Tehran to meet its end of the bargain.

What does Politico mean by “even against the will of Congress?” This isn’t some unique wrinkle to this deal; it’s how Washington works these days.

Obama has almost exclusively functioned “against the will of Congress.” It’s somewhat ironic that the eponymous “Obamacare” is essentially the sole achievement of this presidency secured with the help of legislators. Nothing, neither immigration nor climate change policy nor housing policy nor this Iranian deal, will have been crafted or approved by the legislative representatives of the American people with the proper checks and balances they deserve. And the framework for passage of the Iran deal, thanks to Republicans like Bob Corker, features a threshold higher than the filibuster which Democrats were constantly griping about when they held the majority.

It should be noted, that to some extent, the damage is already done. No matter what happens, the immediate downside is that international sanctions would be lifted, and Iran would be free to pursue its belligerent policies—which is to say, it would simply do what Obama and United Nations have already agreed to allow the Iranian regime to do in the first place.

But does all this handwringing and bogus opposition to the Iran nuclear deal really matter if Barack Obama can do whatever he likes even if the Senate miraculously finds the votes to override his veto? It’s not difficult to imagine Obama making the case that he needs to institute broad powers because so many of these #warmongering politicians have defected and forced his hand. But even as comfortable and skilled as Obama might be in exercising unilateral power, it seems implausible he could pull it off.

First, a patchwork of actions could easily be undone should a Republican somehow win the presidency. (Yes, this necessitates that we imagine the GOP keeping its promises and winning elections.) Without an Iran-U.S. agreement, even a Democrat could far more easily reinstate sanctions once the Islamic Republic breaks any of the provisions in its deals UN. Domestic support for the deal is predicated on partisanship and the idea the very vague idea that diplomacy is always more productive than war. If neither of these factors are involved anymore, public support for boosting Iranian interests would complete crater.

Second, Obama would not only be forced to argue that he has wide discretion over existing legislation — as he always does—but that he has the power to ignore the law and that he was ignoring that law based solely on a pinky swear Iran made to the United Nations. I doubt even he could get away with that,

As Politico points out, Obama would grant relief to Iranian banks and businesses by “de-listing” them as targets of the congressional law. Obama has argued that he can treat provisions punishing foreign institutions for doing business with Iran as “non-binding.”  (This is basically the president’s position on all laws he dislikes.) But this strategy would likely open the deal up to an array of Constitutional lawsuits—and even one loss would probably crater the entire strategy.

Then, there is public opinion. Although Obama no longer has to concern himself with public support, the Democratic Party does have elections to contend with. And, as deal supporter Ruth Marcus wrote today, an embittered Obama isn’t making a compelling argument. She’s being kind. Obama’s pitch is a hodgepodge of ad hominem attacks and ugly insinuations meant to intimidate those still on the fence. Polling since the agreement was announced shows that support for the deal has steadily eroded. The more specific the questions, the less support it enjoys. A recent poll of New York City voters by Quinnipiac University found that the agreement is opposed by 43 percent and supported by only 36 percent. If support for pro-Iranian policies continues to drop, even in liberal cities, and the Senate can override a veto, it would not only be a devastating defeat for Obama, but an unprecedented defeat for any president on foreign policy.

And if, after that, the president decided to ignore Congress and cram through a deal using executive force, it would likely become a big problem for Democrats, as well.