Congress Using Iran to Handcuff Obama on Foreign Affairs

The U.S. Congress is using opposition to Iran as an excuse to attack President Obama’s executive authority in an ill-advised piece of legislation.

The “Iran Threat Reduction Act” HR1905, passed on November 2 by the House Foreign Relations Committee, neither reduces an Iranian threat, nor puts significant pressure on Iran’s leaders to change policies with which the United States disagrees. A corresponding bill has been introduced in the Senate (S1048).

If passed, the House bill would, however, make it illegal for any American diplomat to speak to or have any contact with an Iranian official unless the President certifies to Congress that not talking to the Iranian officials “would pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the vital national security interests of the United States” 15 days prior to that contact.

Former U.S. Ambassadors William Luers and Thomas Pickering point out that this bill is not only illegal, it places the United States in greater danger in the world. They write, “A war with Iran would be madness, and catastrophic for U.S. interests. Surely even the most hawkish on the Hill and in our chattering class must know in their heart of hearts that fact. . . .Congress should more correctly encourage the administration to get to know Iran and Iranians as the time-tested way of protecting our interests while avoiding conflict.”

In addition to tying the President’s hands on diplomacy—a violation of the Constitutional principle of separation of powers—the bill also prevents the President from issuing waivers to existing Iran trade sanctions for any reason, singling out the sale of vital airplane parts for civilian aircraft. Iran’s civilian air fleet is ageing, and without replacement parts, air travel on Iranian carriers poses a danger to the public, including American citizens who travel to Iran. The largest group to be affected is the more than a million Iranian-Americans who regularly travel to Iran. This bill puts their lives in danger; it punishes the public, not the Iranian leaders.

Additional provisions in the bill will result in a raise of oil prices world-wide, eventually hurting U.S. consumers.

These two bills have been introduced by parties who are angry at President Obama for his pledge to improve relations with Iran after his 2008 election, repudiating the policies of the Bush era. They want to punish him for his early stance, even though his policies toward Iran are now virtually the same as those of President Bush. Clearly a bonus for Republican supporters of the bill is the limitations it places on the President’s independence in conducting foreign affairs.

Many powerful groups in Washington lobbied for this bill including the American Israel Public Affairs Council (AIPAC) and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). These organizations are dedicated to making certain that the United States and Iran never achieve formal relations.

The aims of these organizations are misguided. The United States has in fact paid a serious price by not maintaining diplomatic contact with Iran for more than four decades. Iran’s actions in the world have been irksome to the United States government, but the inability to even talk with Iranian officials has deepened misunderstanding between the two nations. As a result even small matters of dispute that would be easily resolved under normal diplomatic contact become tangled and threatening.

A recent example is seen in the case of “hikers” Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd, imprisoned in Iran for straying over the Iranian border from Iraq without proper documentation. Had the United States had a diplomatic presence in Iran, these three hapless prisoners would at least have had recourse to diplomatic contact, and an active advocate for their rights in securing their release. As it was, the United States could only sit on this side of the Atlantic and issue meaningless public statements expressing hope for their release.

Preventing United States officials from contact with Iran also precludes discussion of any topic or issue at all, including matters of intense mutual interest such as control of drug smuggling, environmental disasters such as earthquakes, military emergencies or acts of war. It also prevents the United States from having trained diplomatic observers in Iran to take the pulse of political and social affairs—an essential element of national intelligence. In an extreme application of the law it would prevent American officials from even greeting Iranian officials at international gatherings, such as at the United Nations or in the capitals of third nations.

This bill sets an extraordinarily bad precedent. If Congress is able to restrict the executive branch regarding contacts with Iran, theoretically it could set the same restrictions for any country in the future. The action is unprecedented in U.S. history. Not even during the Cold War did Congress try to restrict the ability of the President and his representatives from contact with foreign powers—even America’s most potent enemies—the Soviet Union and Communist China.

The bill now proceeds to the full House for a vote. If it passes, which is likely, it will proceed to the Senate. It can only be hoped that the Senate leaders see the danger in this unwise legislation, and either kill the bill, or modify it significantly.