Introduction

On May 22, 2015, President Obama signed into law the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (Pub. L. 114-17).  The statute requires the President to transmit to Congress any agreement with Iran relating to its nuclear program, and would restrict the President from relieving sanctions against Iran while Congress considers the agreement.  Congress would have 30 days to enact a joint resolution either approving or disapproving the agreement, or take no action at all.  In the event that the President vetoes a joint resolution disapproving the agreement, the law would restrict him from relieving sanctions for 10 days following such a veto.  In the event that the President ultimately does relieve sanctions against Iran, the statute further requires the President to report periodically to Congress on Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement, and provides for an expedited congressional consideration of re-imposition of sanctions in the event Iran is noncompliant.  The law leaves intact sanctions against Iran related to Iran’s support for terrorism, human rights abuses, and ballistic missile program.

Summary of Statute

Transmission to Congress of Final Nuclear Agreement

The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act requires the President to transmit to Congress, within 5 calendar days after reaching any agreement, the full agreement with Iran relating to its nuclear program.  The President is also required to transmit to Congress a verification assessment report prepared by the Secretary of State that contains information regarding the following:

the extent to which the Secretary of State can verify Iran’s compliance with the terms of the agreement

the adequacy of the safeguards and other control mechanisms in the agreement to ensure that Iran is not furthering any nuclear-related military or nuclear explosive purpose

the capacity and capability of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to effectively implement any verification regime related to Iran’s nuclear program

Finally, the law also requires the President to certify that:

the agreement transmitted to Congress includes, among other, a description of any sanctions to be waived, suspended, or otherwise reduced by the United States or any other nation or entity, including the United Nations

the President has determined that the agreement meets US non-proliferation objectives, and that Iran will not use activities permitted under the agreement to further any nuclear-related military or nuclear explosive purpose

The statute does not require the President to certify that Iran is not engaging in acts of terrorism against the United States, a requirement which the President had earlier indicated would cause him to veto the bill.

Congressional Review

Once the President transmits the agreement, Congress would have 30 calendar days (60 if transmitted during a certain period in summer) to conduct initial review of the agreement.  Notwithstanding any agreement reached with Iran, the statute restricts the President from relieving “statutory” sanctions against Iran before and during congressional review of the agreement.   Presumably, this reference to “statutory” sanctions means that the President is free to lift sanctions issued under executive orders as he sees fit.  It should be noted, however, that most nuclear-related sanctions against Iran are statutory.

Upon review by Congress, three outcomes are possible.  First, Congress can enact a joint resolution favoring the agreement.  Second, Congress can enact a joint resolution disfavoring the agreement.  Finally, Congress can enact no such joint resolution.    

If a joint resolution disapproving the agreement passes both Houses of Congress, the bill restricts the President from relieving statutory sanctions against Iran for 12 calendar days following the passage of such a resolution.  In case the President vetoes a joint resolution disapproving the agreement, the bill restricts the President from relieving statutory sanctions against Iran for 10 calendar days following such a veto, during which time Congress may “reconsider” its disapproval resolution.  The statute is silent as to whether Congress may override the President’s veto or again vote to disapprove of the agreement.   However, the law expressly provides that any action to relieve sanctions “may not be taken” – full stop – if Congress passes a disapproval resolution.

Post-Agreement Reporting Obligations

The bill requires the President to keep Congress “fully and currently informed” of all aspects of Iran’s compliance with the agreement.  This includes informing Congress of any potentially significant breaches and compliance incidents, and a determination of whether such breaches and incidents constitute a “material breach.”  The President is also required to submit to Congress a semi-annual report on Iran’s nuclear program and compliance with the agreement.  The report should cover a wide range of information, including “all of the sanctions relief provided to Iran, pursuant to the agreement, and a description of the relationship between each sanction waived, suspended, or deferred and Iran’s nuclear weapon’s program.” 

The bill requires the President to periodically determine whether he can certify as to certain aspects of Iran’s nuclear program and compliance with the agreement, as well as whether the sanctions relief provided under the agreement is “appropriate and proportionate to the specific and verifiable measures taken by Iran with respect to terminating its illicit nuclear program” and “vital to the national security interests of the United States.”  In case the President does not provide a certification, or submits a determination to Congress of any material breach by Iran, the bill provides for expedited congressional consideration to reinstate sanctions on Iran.

Conclusion

The new law provides for congressional review of any nuclear agreement with Iran, as well as congressional oversight of the Administration’s dealing with the Iranian nuclear program and its compliance with any final agreement.  However, it leaves numerous issues unresolved.  For example, in terms of the US domestic process, it is unclear whether the President would consider himself bound by any joint resolution of disapproval enacted by Congress, and if the President were to veto a joint resolution, it is not clear whether Congress would have the authority to override the veto, or how the President’s authority would be impacted by such an override.  Regarding the substance of the quid pro quo with Iran associated with a final nuclear deal, it is not clear which sanctions Congress and the President consider to be nuclear-related for purposes of sanctions relief.  The relationship of various pieces of legislation and Presidential executive orders is complex.  Even considering the nuclear-related sanctions on their own, it is not clear which of these the President intends to suspend or terminate in the event of a final agreement with Iran. Furthermore, additional sanctions relief will need to be considered, especially in the event that the Iranian government is found to be in compliance with the agreement over the required period of time.