White House Seeks to Bypass Congress on Iran Deal

Aims to unilaterally unwind sanctions laws

President Barack Obama looks to bypass Congress on Iran sanctions
President Barack Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R., Ohio) / AP
January 21, 2014

The White House has been exploring ways to circumvent Congress and unilaterally lift sanctions on Iran once a final nuclear agreement is reached, according to sources with knowledge of White House conversations and congressional insiders familiar with its strategy.

The issue of sanctions relief has become one of the key sticking points in the Iran debate, with lawmakers pushing for increased economic penalties and the White House fighting to roll back regulations.

While many in Congress insist that only the legislative branch can legally repeal sanctions, senior White House officials have been examining strategies to skirt Congress, according to those familiar with internal conversations.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.), who is leading the charge on new sanctions legislation, said that it is unacceptable for the White House to try to bypass Congress on such a critical global issue.

"The American people must get a say in any final nuclear agreement with Iran to ensure the mullahs never get the bomb," Kirk told the Washington Free Beacon. "The administration cannot just ignore U.S. law and lift sanctions unilaterally."

Congressional insiders say that the White House is worried Congress will exert oversight of the deal and demand tougher nuclear restrictions on Tehran in exchange for sanctions relief.

Top White House aides have been "talking about ways to do that [lift sanctions] without Congress and we have no idea yet what that means," said one senior congressional aide who works on sanctions. "They’re looking for a way to lift them by fiat, overrule U.S. law, drive over the sanctions, and declare that they are lifted."

Under the interim nuclear deal with Iran that began on Monday, Tehran will receive more than $4 billion in cash, according to the White House.

President Barack Obama could unilaterally unravel sanctions through several executive channels, according to former government officials and legal experts.

Executive orders grant the president significant leverage in the how sanctions are implemented, meaning that Obama could choose to stop enforcing many of the laws on the books, according to government insiders.

Those familiar with the ins and outs of sanctions enforcement say that the White House has long been lax with its enforcement of sanctions regulations already on the books.

"It's no secret that the president, with executive power, can determine sanctions implementation, particularly with waivers and the decision not to sanction certain entities," said Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the Treasury Department, which is responsible for enforcing sanctions.

"The financial pressure has always been about closing loopholes and identifying new ones to close," Schanzer added. "If you stop that process of constant gardening, you leave a backdoor open."

Obama could also use executive waivers to "bypass restrictions imposed by the law," according to a report by Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP).

The president has a lot of leverage when it comes to sanctions and could effectively "turn a blind eye" to Iranian infractions.

"In the case of Iran, such an approach could allow Washington to reach a nuclear accord without Congress having to vote on rescinding, even temporarily or conditionally, certain sanctions," Clawson wrote. "No matter how stiff and far-reaching sanctions may be as embodied in U.S. law, they would have less bite if the administration stopped enforcing them."

One former senior government official said that President Obama’s legal team has likely been investigating the issue for quite some time.

"I’d be shocked if they weren’t putting the various sanctions laws under a microscope to see how they can waive them or work around them in order to deliver to Iran sanctions relief without having to worry about Congress standing in their way," said Stephen Rademaker, who served as deputy legal adviser to former President George H.W. Bush’s National Security Council (NSC).

Executive branch lawyers are often tasked with finding ways to get around existing legislation, Rademaker said.

"I’m sure pretty early in the negotiating process they developed a roadmap" to ensure the president has the authority to promise Iran significant relief from sanctions, said Rademaker, who also served as chief council for the House Committee on International Relations. "I’m sure they’ve come up with an in depth analysis of what they can do relying exclusively on the president's legal authority."

The White House has been known to disregard portions of the sanctions laws that it disagrees with, according to Schanzer.

"Just about every time there has been new sanctions legislation, the White House has watered it down in one way or another for various reasons," he said. "The implementation is always an imperfect implementation of what Congress wants."

When asked if Obama was planning to circumvent Congress, a White House spokesperson referred the Free Beacon to its previous comment about Iran sanctions and declined to comment further.

The Obama administration has already begun to wind back the sanctions interim deal recently inked with Iran—an accord that does not require any type of congressional approval.

Iran will receive $550 million on Feb. 1, and another $450 million on March 1.

It will then receive $550 million on March 7, followed by similar monthly cash installments from April until July.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D., Fla.), one of the lead figures opposing new Iran sanctions legislation in the House, did not respond to a request for comment on the White House’s bid to skirt Congress.