Iran's long arm.

Photographer: Evrim Aydin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Iran's Zarif Says Congress Can’t Stop Obama

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
Read More.
a | A

If Iran strikes a deal with the West, all sanctions will be lifted very quickly and there’s nothing the U.S. Congress can do to stop it, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told a New York audience Wednesday.

In a set of blustery and self-righteous remarks, Iran’s top diplomat assured the crowd at New York University that President Barack Obama would be compelled to stop enforcing sanctions only days after any nuclear agreement was signed and would have to figure out how to lift congressional sanctions on Iran within weeks, no matter what Congress has to say about it. He also said that any future president, even a Republican, would be compelled to stick that agreement.

Zarif also took several shots at the U.S. Senate, just as it debated amendments to a bill designed to slow the lifting of sanctions against Iran and give Congress an oversight role on the deal.

“As a foreign government, I only deal with the U.S. government. I do not deal with Congress,” Zarif said. “The responsibility of bringing that into line falls on the shoulders of the president of the United States. That’s the person with whom we are making an agreement.”

Zarif said that if there is a nuclear agreement by June 30, the negotiators' latest self-imposed deadline, then within a few days the United Nations Security Council would pass a resolution lifting all UN sanctions and requiring Obama to stop enforcing all of the U.S. sanctions immediately.

“He will have to stop implementing all the sanctions, economic and financial sanctions that have been executive order and congressional. However he does it, that’s his problem,” Zarif said. “The resolution will endorse the agreement, will terminate all previous resolutions including all sanctions, will set in place the termination of EU sanctions and the cessation of applications of all U.S. sanctions.”

The U.S. would have to endorse this resolution “whether Senator Cotton likes it or not,” Zarif said, jabbing at Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton, who initiated an open letter to the Iranian leadership promising that Congress could unravel any deal Obama makes with them.

At the event, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius pointed out that according to the Obama administration’s statements, sanctions would be lifted only after the Iranians met an initial set of conditions. Zarif responded that it would take “only a few weeks” to meet those conditions and that “preparatory steps” would be taken in advance of such verification. He added: “That is the point where we take these measures, preparation for these measures, and the sanctions will be removed. How this will be done, we know the concept. The concept is these will be simultaneous.”

Zarif also said that if the next president tries to change or withdraw from the agreement, as some Republican presidential candidates have promised, the U.S. would risk isolating itself in the world and ruining its credibility.

“The American president is bound by international law, whether they like it or not. And international law requires the United States live up to any agreement this government enters into,” he said. “You know that, maybe Senator Cotton doesn’t.”

Zarif criticized the effort in the Senate to pass a bill from Senator Bob Corker that would delay the lifting of sanctions by several weeks while Congress reviews any deal. Several Republican senators are trying to add amendments making the bill tougher on Iran. Zarif said the U.S. will pay if Congress successfully interferes with nuclear deal.

“If the U.S. Senate wants to send a message to the rest of the world that all of these agreements that the United States has signed are invalid, then you will have chaos in your bilateral relations, although you are welcome to do it,” he said.

Zarif also insisted that Obama would not be able to “snap back” sanctions after they are lifted, as the White House has repeatedly claimed. And he accused the U.S. government of violating the interim agreement in various ways, including the Treasury Department having added sanctions designations on Iranians that were not related to the nuclear program.

“If people are worrying about snapback, they should be worrying about the U.S. violating its obligations and us snapping back,” he said. “That is a point that the United States should be seriously concerned about. This is not a game.”

The last round of nuclear negotiations will begin in earnest next week, and will go non-stop until June 30, said Zarif. This week, negotiators are working on a first draft, which will identify differences remaining between the sides and set the baseline for new negotiations.

That June 30 deadline could change, he said, and but he declined to specify where the remaining gaps lie.

Zarif also commented on the Iranian Navy’s seizing of a cargo vessel Tuesday that was flagged from the Marshall Islands, a country that depends on the U.S. for and security. He said the Iranian Navy was executing a legal order based on a failure by the owner, the Danish company Maersk, to pay fees some 15 or 20 years ago. Zarif said the diversion of the Maersk Tigris wasn't meant to send a signal to the U.S. or anyone else amid the heightened tensions caused by the crisis in Yemen. He said the incident should have no impact on the nuclear negotiations.

“It has nothing to do with Yemen,” he said. “This was a legal case … We shouldn’t read to much into it. Some people do try to read too much into it in order to torpedo a process that is independent of this.”

Zarif also commented on several other regional issues. He denied that Iran has a controlling influence in any of four Arab countries --  Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen -- but that the citizens of those countries want an Iranian presence. "People of the region feel close to us because we were on the right side of history" in fighting a war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, he said.

He said that Iran has a good relationship with Saudi Arabia and would welcome Saudi Arabia developing a peaceful nuclear program similar to Iran's. He also accused Saudi Arabia of creating, funding, and arming the Islamic State. He criticized Saudi Arabia for bombing in Yemen but refused to acknowledge that Assad is using that tactic on much broader scale in Syria. 

When asked about the imprisonment of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian at a Tehran prison, Zarif said Rezaian will have to defend himself in court against serious charges. He added that many Iranians are imprisoned abroad, but Rezaian is better known because “the Washington Post has a much better publicity campaign.”

Zarif’s statements about the nuclear negotiations -- and everything else, for that matter -- should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. But the gap between his view and Obama’s of how sanctions relief will occur shows that there is no agreement on the issue. And Zarif may be right that Congress can’t stop the administration from lifting sanctions. On this point, the Iranian foreign minister and the speaker of the House seem to agree.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net