Good, Bad, and Ugly Options for Congress After the Iran Agreement


Now that President Barack Obama has secured enough congressional support to move forward with implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the next debate will be about new measures Congress may enact to complement (or torpedo) the agreement with Iran. Opponents and supporters of the agreement, including Obama himself, have indicated the need to pursue additional policies that ensure vigorous implementation of the agreement, reassure Israel and Arab partners of American commitments to their security, and counter the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) support for its surrogates and proxies. The ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, has indicated that he plans to introduce such legislation this week even though he intends to vote against the deal.

Most of these policies do not require dramatic changes through legislation. And Congress’ ability to influence them will be limited. Outside of levying new sanctions or authorizing force, its tools for effecting foreign policy changes are relatively weak. But the positions Congress takes, even on policies that will ultimately be determined by the executive branch, impact the political debate in the United States and send signals around the globe. A piece of legislation that outlines an overall American strategy in the aftermath of the agreement, and garners genuine bipartisan support after the highly contentious debate this summer, is of real value. Through both political unity and intensive oversight, an effective piece of legislation along these lines can help steer this administration and the next towards such a strategy.

There are numerous proposals for what should go into this legislation. Some of the ideas are sound steps that should be taken to strengthen the likelihood of successful enforcement and implementation. But others — including new legislative measures currently being explored by the Republican leadership as well as some of the measures in Cardin’s bill — are either misguided or intended to smother the JCPOA in its crib.


The first debate will involve the sanctions regime against Iran. The United States should work with likeminded partners to put in place additional “snapback” mechanisms for sanctions in anticipation of possible Iranian cheating. The nuclear agreement includes a provision that allows the United States to bypass a potential Russian or Chinese veto at the United Nations Security Council and re-impose UN sanctions. However, what will matter most is whether Iran’s European and Asian trading partners follow through on commitments to re-impose sanctions. It is vital that the United States and its partners have a clear and common understanding of the types of violations they may face. These will range from small violations on the edges of the agreement (e.g. illegally obtaining a dual-use item that should have gone through the dedicated procurement channel) to extreme cheating (e.g. a new secret enrichment facility). The United States and its partners should also agree on the types of new sanctions they might impose in different scenarios to ensure a coordinated international response. Having an exact plan is not necessary as it is impossible to predict every scenario. But this type of planning will ensure that if Iran violates the agreement, it will face a unified response. Indeed, just the knowledge that this planning has taken place and that the international community is prepared may deter Iran from cheating in the first place.

Working closely and in coordination with European allies, the United States can also pursue an aggressive sanctions strategy targeting Iranian support for terrorism and the illicit activities of the IRGC. This could include ramping up enforcement of the current terrorism sanctions that are on the books and targeting entities that support Iranian terrorism. While the Iranians may bristle at such steps and claim (falsely) that the United States is violating the JCPOA, these actions are likely to be supported by our European partners, and the Iranians will have too much at stake to walk away. Congress can play a valuable role by continuing to call for tougher action and thus push both the executive branch and America’s allies to lean forward more aggressively, but passing new sanctions now would be premature unless we see a significant scale-up in Iran’s activities in the region.

What is truly not necessary and would undermine the agreement is for Congress to pass new terrorism, human rights, or ballistic missile sanctions that essentially impose the same punishments on the same entities that have just received sanctions relief under the JCPOA. New proposals that focus on secondary sanctions against Iran’s financial or energy sector and result in a significant round of new penalties would violate the agreement. They would jeopardize unity among the P5+1 and could cause Iran to walk away.

Reassuring Israel

There is also a strong movement in Congress for new steps to reassure Israel, including from many of the supporters of the JCPOA. The most important and productive step that the United States could take along this front is to renew the Memorandum of Understanding on American Military Aid to Israel, which will set the level of American military support to Israel for the next decade and is currently set to expire in 2017. The renewal of this agreement has been under discussion for some time, but now in the aftermath of the Iran agreement and particularly given the intense political confrontation between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama, a renewal of this memorandum is key. Fast-tracking this discussion and coming to an agreement in the weeks ahead would send a strong signal to Israel and the rest of the world that despite U.S.–Israeli disagreements about Iran, the United States continues its long-term security commitment to Israel.

Some voices have called for the administration to transfer the Massive Ordinance Penetrator (MOP) to Israel. This 30,000-pound bomb is purportedly capable of inflicting significant damage to buried and fortified targets, such as those that shelter different components of Iran’s nuclear program, but there is no sound strategic rationale for providing it to Israel. Such a step would be ineffective unless the United States also transferred to Israel a B-2 bomber, which could carry the MOP, a move that would violate the New START Treaty and eat up one-third of Israel’s yearly military support budget from the United States. Moreover, such a move would be seen as highly provocative not just by Iran, but by our P5+1 partners, who would question why the United States is dramatically increasing Israel’s capability to strike Iran unilaterally. And it would not substantially improve deterrence against an Iranian breakout as Tehran’s calculus is much more impacted by concerns of a conflict with the United States — which could threaten the regime’s existence — than those of a fight with Israel, which the regime is confident it can absorb.

The Military Component

There is also the question of what the United States can do militarily to respond to Iran’s meddling in the region. What Arab partners really need from the United States is not new high-end conventional weapons such as the F-35 but support in countering Iran’s asymmetric activities. Selling the Gulf states new weapons systems would not actually solve any problems or truly reassure the Gulf states. And it would raise Israeli anxiety about America’s commitment to Israel’s conventional military edge in the region. Instead what is needed is more training, intelligence sharing, and cooperation among special operations forces.

A first step would be to create a regularly recurring high-level forum with the Gulf Cooperation Council and Arab partners to develop a practical, actionable, and comprehensive strategy to counter the IRGC and its action network of proxies that are operating throughout the region. Thus far, the United States has focused on the nuclear program while oftentimes neglecting this aspect of the Iran challenge. Beyond this high-level forum, the United States can conduct joint exercises and training of partners aimed at countering the IRGC, increase intelligence sharing, and even conduct some joint covert actions. One particular area of emphasis in training for Arab partners should be in foreign internal defense and unconventional warfare, which are particular specialties of the IRGC that need to be countered. Key Arab partners such as the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are increasingly looking to these lines of effort to push back against the Iranian proxies in the region’s civil wars such as in Syria and Yemen. Perhaps the strongest signal the United States can send along these lines would be in Syria where it should get off the sidelines and significantly expand programs for arming, training, and equipping moderate opposition forces, including those forces opposing President Bashar al-Assad.

Another example would be to conduct joint interdiction operations to counter Iran’s weapons smuggling in the region. For example, Israel has a long history of interdicting Iranian arms shipments headed for Syria or Gaza, publicly announcing the interdiction and displaying pictures of the weapons for the world to see. The United States can work with Israel on such efforts and either conduct such an operation itself, or if it deems that too risky, allow the Israeli military to conduct the operation, thus not risking a highly escalatory incident between the United States and Iran. No matter who conducts the operation, once the mission is complete, the United States should be the one to make an announcement and disseminate pictures of Iranian weapons to the world. This would send a clear signal to Iran and our partners regarding Washington’s intent while also creating significantly more embarrassment for Iran than if Israel accused them of shipping arms.

Another option being suggested is a conditional authorization for the use of military force that would go into effect if Iran violates the agreement. Proponents argue that such a step would create a sound deterrent that would limit or prevent Iranian violations. They also argue that the agreement makes the threat of force less credible, and therefore that Congress needs to pre-authorize such options. But votes of war and peace are the most profound ones facing America’s leaders. It seems ill advised to force a vote on a hypothetical war with little knowledge of the potential future context. Indeed, one need only look at how seriously members of Congress have deliberated on the JCPOA, the number of hearings and briefings they have received, and the series of long essays that have been produced by members when they announce their decisions. Any decision to support military action against Iran should require similar scrutiny and debate.

Over the next 13 to 15 years, with Iran a year or longer away from a nuclear weapon, there will be time for such a debate even in the event of an attempted Iranian breakout. And a breakout will not happen in a complete vacuum. If as the agreement approaches year 15, Iran’s behavior remains problematic, its breakout time starts to decrease, and it does not appear to be using the JCPOA to transition to a legitimate civilian nuclear program, then this debate can be revisited. And in that scenario, American and international willingness to confront Iran should remain high. On the other hand, if relations with Iran do genuinely improve over the next 15 years and the regime starts to moderate, the chances of it dashing to a nuclear weapon and the need to pursue military force drop significantly. In short, a vote today on the contingent use of force is simply unnecessary and would prematurely surrender one of Congress’ most important roles.

What Obama and Congress can do is reiterate that they remain willing to use force to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons should Iran choose to pursue that track. The United States can make this threat credible by maintaining a long-term robust force posture in the Middle East, including a combination of an aircraft carrier and fixed-wing aircraft in the Gulf.

In the end, the nuclear agreement is not the end of the story, but just the next chapter in the broader challenges that the United States faces in dealing with Iran and the Middle East. After a major strategic breakthrough such as that embodied by the JCPOA, policy options are nearly limitless. But the United States should choose wisely if it wishes to capitalize on this agreement instead of undermining it before it is even implemented. Congress should show some restraint and focus on a piece of legislation that can build consensus on a series of steps that Republicans and Democrats can agree will reduce the likelihood of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons and help stabilize the Middle East.


Ilan Goldenberg is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He previously served as the Iran Team Chief in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Nicholas A. Heras is the Research Associate at the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.


Photo credit: Phil Roeder