To get a final deal with Iran, Washington is going to have to be ready to trade in nuclear-related sanctions in exchange for Iranian nuclear concessions. But unless Congress gives the President the authority to lift sanctions, the President will be limited to extending temporary waivers for the sanctions for successive four-to-six month periods ad infinitum.
To see why this is a problem, just read this piece in The New York Times this morning showing just what happens in negotiations when the President does not have the appropriate authority from Congress. The Times discusses President Obama's failed attempt to procure a trade deal with Japan on his recent trip there because he does not have necessary authorities from Congress to conclude an agreement:
"...analysts faulted Mr. Obama, saying his decision not to fight for the legislative authority at home to pass major trade deals had robbed him of leverage with the Japanese, who are reluctant to make concessions for a deal that may not survive Congress.
"'Their strategy was to get the Japanese to do the deal, then go to Congress and say, 'Look what a great deal we got, now give us the authority,'' said Michael J. Green, an Asia adviser to President George W. Bush. 'He made a decision to go into this with one hand tied behind his back.'"
In other words, President Obama entered trade negotiations with Japan hobbled by a Congress reluctant to delegate to him the requisite trade authorities. And instead of pushing Congress to grant him such powers, the President figured to reverse the order and first get a good deal with Japan and then leverage that deal to get a similar one with Congress.
Regardless of the merits of a trade deal, this is a priority for Obama. And the problem is this: Without authority from Congress, the President lacked leverage to get an agreement with Japan to deliver on this priority. As soon as Japan's negotiators understood the limits of the President's ability to make good on promises he offered during negotiations, they chose not to show their hand in trade talks absent a more concrete indication that America would follow-thru on its promises. Thus, no deal.
Here, the parallel to another major priority for Obama--getting a strong nuclear deal with Iran-- should be obvious. Just as the President entered talks with Japan hamstrung, so he has entered negotiations with Iran lacking the authorities to provide Iran the kind of sanctions relief that they will expect should a final deal be reached. Unless there is confidence that the President will get the necessary authorities from Congress to implement sanctions relief as promised, the US side has far less leverage to put sanctions on the table to get strong concessions from Iran.
This is not the position in which the United States should find itself, especially on the eve of a potential historic diplomatic win over Iran's nuclear program.
While it is likely infeasible for the President to get Congress to provide him the requisite authorities to lift sanctions before an Iran deal is struck, there must to be a viable plan in place to get Congress to do so once a deal is agreed. That plan must also be signaled at the negotiating table, so as to inject confidence between the negotiating parties and to bolster the US hand in the talks. Instead of playing the perpetual "bad cop" and threatening to scuttle any final deal, Congress could improve the position of US negotiators dramatically if it signals its preparedness to give the President the power to relieve sanctions in order to implement a strong nuclear agreement. And the President can strengthen his negotiators' hands by ensuring that the groundwork to get a deal is laid now, rather than waiting until we get a deal with Iran only to see it blocked by Congress.