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As the United States and Iran begin a new round of expert-level talks in New York next week, Congress must resist the urge to back-seat drive the diplomatic process. While our diplomats are working to drive us toward a deal guarding against a war and a nuclear-armed Iran, some members of Congress have tried to take the wheel and steer us in a different direction.
Like most back-seat drivers, they believe they are being helpful. However, aggressive back-seat driving doesn’t do drivers, or diplomats, any favors.
To the contrary, congressional back-seat driving complicates our diplomats’ already painstakingly difficult work. While our diplomats are trying to drive us toward preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, critics protest from their passenger seats on Capitol Hill. They have a different destination in mind. They believe Iran should be prevented from enriching any uranium — even if it’s for a peaceful nuclear energy program.
Certainly, it would be a nonproliferation dream come true if Iran opted to renounce nuclear energy. However, it’s important that we not allow the perfect to be the enemy of a good — or great — nuclear deal. Nuclear energy is wildly popular in Iran. Whether the Islamic Republic moves in a more authoritarian or democratic direction, any Iranian government for the foreseeable future is sure to insist on a civilian nuclear enrichment program.
Fortunately, we can keep Iran from the bomb, even while allowing Iran to enrich uranium for a verifiably peaceful nuclear program.
This can be accomplished by restricting Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity to only cover practical needs for a civilian nuclear program. There would have to be additional safeguards in place to ensure that Iran’s heavy water reactor at Arak is not used to produce plutonium for a weapons program. Tehran would have to submit to a rigorous inspection regime to guarantee that it cannot develop an undetectable nuclear breakout capability.
A successful combination of constraints and intrusive inspections would ensure that if Iran were to cheat, it would be caught very early in that process and face consequences.
These general contours of a crisis-ending nuclear agreement are well-known by U.S. and Iranian officials alike. However, the nitty-gritty details will have to be hashed out through more rounds of intensive negotiations, rather than be issued by congressional decree.
This is not to say that Congress shouldn’t be deeply involved with the negotiating process. In fact, there can be no final nuclear agreement without Congress’ support. For Iran to submit to iron-clad safeguards on its nuclear program, sanctions will have to be lifted. While the president can waive many of these sanctions, congressional action would be required to lift the most significant sanctions.
Even the most recent Menendez-Graham letter, which insisted on various unrealistic ultimatums for a final nuclear deal, did acknowledge this point. The letter, signed by 83 senators, noted that “should an acceptable final agreement be reached, your administration will need to work together with Congress to enact implementing legislation to provide longer term sanctions relief.”
Congress need not wait for a final nuclear deal to engage with the negotiating process. Congressional oversight along the way can help ensure that Iran continues to comply with the first-step deal reached on Nov. 24, 2013, or the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA).