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Iran Vote Wasn't a Total Victory for Obama

James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View. He was features editor at the Atlantic, deputy editor at the New York Times op-ed page and executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine. He was a foreign service officer and a speechwriter for Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and President Bill Clinton.
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The Senate's 98-1 vote in favor of a bill giving Congress a formal review of any U.S. nuclear deal with Iran may be seen as something of a victory for President Barack Obama, whose administration secured several important changes to the original bill. But Congress still managed to insert some provisions that will make the administration's life difficult, while also potentially shining a harsh light on Iranian behavior.

QuickTake Iran's Nuclear Program

Among Obama's gains were that the review period during which he cannot waive congressional sanctions has been shortened by a month. The legislation was also stripped of a provision that would have allowed Congress to re-impose sanctions if Obama could not certify at 90-day intervals that "Iran has not directly supported or carried out an act of terrorism against the United States or a United States person anywhere in the world" -- a deal-killing blunderbuss if ever there was one.

But read the bill line-by-line, and you'll see several important changes that expand verification and reporting requirements on the White House. These include new semi-annual reports on Iran's ballistic missile program, the status of U.S. efforts to condemn or counter Iranian terrorism, detailed accounting of how every instance of sanctions relief will affect Iran's nuclear program, and an assessment of whether human rights violations in Iran have changed during the reporting period. There's also a beefed-up "sense of Congress" resolution on compensation for American hostages and Israel's right to exist, but lacking any enforcement or reporting requirements, this new language is mostly just righteous eyewash.

These new reporting rules won't necessarily affect the president's ability to waive congressional sanctions. But each one provides a basis for hearings and, potentially, new sanctions. In that respect, they could spell trouble for the administration even after a nuclear deal is reached.

You could argue, and some will, that the overwhelming passage of the bill is an example of Congress rediscovering bipartisanship to reassert its role in foreign policy. Let's hope so. I'll be more convinced, though, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pushes votes on things such as a new authorization to use military force against the Islamic State, the State Department budget and languishing ambassadorial nominations. That would be shocking.  

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:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

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