Even if the U.S. Congress rejects his final Iranian nuclear deal, President Barack Obama could use his executive pen to offer Tehran a hefty portion of sanctions relief on his own.
Lawmakers have insisted on having a say on what could be a historic accord that the U.S. and five other nations are trying to finalize with Iran. The aim is to prevent the Islamic state from developing nuclear weapons, while in return Iran would get a break from U.S., European and U.N. sanctions that are choking its economy.
Negotiators are working to complete a final deal by the end of June. Talks will resume next week in Vienna, it was announced Thursday.
In the meantime, legislation is expected to pass both the Senate and House that would block Obama from using his current authority to waive congressional sanctions against Iran for at least 30 days after any final agreement, to give lawmakers time to weigh in.
However, even if Congress rejected a final agreement, Obama could take unilateral actions that — when coupled with European and U.N. sanctions relief — would allow a deal with Tehran to be implemented.
The president could suspend some existing U.S. sanctions with his waiver authority. He could issue new orders to permit financial transactions that otherwise are banned under current law. And he could simply take certain Iranians and entities, including nearly two dozen Iranian banks, off U.S. target lists, meaning they no longer would be subject to sanctions.
Only Congress can terminate its legislative sanctions. And those are some of the toughest penalties against Iran because they target its energy sector, central bank and key segments of its economy. But experts say Obama can neutralize the effect of some of those sanctions, too, and work with the Europeans to neutralize others.
Treasury official Adam Szubin told the House last month that the Obama administration doesn’t think congressional sanctions should be terminated for years to come — long after Obama leaves the White House — so that the U.S. continues to retain leverage over Tehran years into any final agreement.
But there’s more to the story.
Says Tyler Cullis, legal fellow at the National Iranian American Council, which favors an agreement: “Some have expressed doubt whether the president can provide Iran significant sanctions relief solely on the basis of his own authority. Such doubt should be put to rest.”
He said the president “could almost gut” an entire segment of sanctions by taking Iran’s major banks off the Treasury Department’s list of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List. Those on this list face asset freezes, and Americans are banned from doing business with them. Moreover, many U.S. and foreign banks and businesses have opted to steer clear of those on the list just to make sure they don’t violate U.S. sanctions.
If the Europeans and other nations participating with the U.S. in the nuclear talks lift their penalties against Iran, the international sanctions regime will begin to unravel, and Cullis said Obama could tell lawmakers they should work with him to join the sanctions relief campaign.
Mark Dubowitz, a leading sanctions proponent with the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, agrees.
“It is legally possible for him to go it alone,” Dubowitz said. “He can do a lot on his own and he can do a lot with the Europeans.”
According to Dubowitz, if the Europeans lift the Iranian oil embargo, Iran could work to increase the 1.1 million barrels a day that it’s exporting now to pre-sanction levels of an estimated 2.1 million. At $50 a barrel, that would provide Iran with about $18 billion more in oil revenue every year.
Currently, those importing Iranian oil are required to pay into locked escrow accounts in a handful of countries. There’s an estimated $100 billion sitting in those accounts, and that money could be released through presidential action.
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