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Steve Contorno
By Steve Contorno March 10, 2015

Ron Johnson: Iran's parliament gets to vote on nuclear deal, Congress should too

Republican Sen. Ron Johnson wants President Barack Obama to seek Congress’ approval before finalizing a deal with Iran, an agreement that would halt the country’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for sanction relief.

Obama has argued that since the agreement is not a treaty, Congress’ approval isn’t needed. But Johnson, R-Wis., one of 47 GOP senators who signed a controversial letter to Iran critical of the negotiations, isn’t buying it.

"The Iranian parliament will get to say yes or no on this deal," Johnson said March 8, "and I think the United States Congress should have the exact same input into the process."

It’s a curious comparison, but is it accurate? We decided to check.

You can look at this through two lenses: What does Iran’s Constitution literally say about the duties of the parliament, called the Islamic Consultative Assembly or the Majles? And in practice, what responsibilities does the parliament actually have in an authoritarian regime heavily controlled by the Supreme Leader and the unelected 12-member Guardian Council?

The Iran Constitution

The Iranian parliament is made up of 290 elected officials. Their duties are outlined in the country’s Constitution.

There are some strict limitations on the body’s power. For example, it "cannot enact laws contrary to the usual and ahkam (the Islamic commandments) of the official religion of the country or to the Constitution." The Guardian Council determines if a law is in violation and it often overturns legislation in the name of Islam or the constitution.

But the Constitution does bestow some broad powers on the assembly. Article 77 says, "International treaties, protocols, contracts, and agreements must be approved by the Islamic Consultative Assembly."

That would seem to be a point for Johnson, right? Not necessarily.

Just as the White House contends that the agreement is not a treaty and therefore not subject to congressional approval, Obama’s National Security Council says the deal would not fall under "international treaties, protocols, contracts and agreements" in the Iranian Constitution.

Experts agreed.

"The Iranian parliament has the authority to ratify treaties, but a possible nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 will be a political agreement, not a treaty," said Alireza Nader, a senior policy analyst at RAND Corporation. "The Majles can debate the agreement, but it is unlikely to vote yes or no on it. The political establishment, including the Supreme Leader, president, etc., will have the critical voice."

There is one aspect of the agreement that may need approval from Iran’s parliament. The Joint Plan of Action for reaching an agreement says that the final step to a comprehensive solution is contingent on Iran ratifying and implementing the "additional protocol." What’s that?

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Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran signed, member countries must abide to standards set forth by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In 2003, the agency approved additional protocols for Iran so the agency could monitor Iran’s nuclear sites.

While Iran temporarily abided by the additional protocol, it has since stopped, and it never ratified the agreement. If Iran wants the United States to lift its economic sanctions, it must ratify that agreement, which would require action by Iran’s parliament.

A 'dead letter'?

Johnson’s staff pointed us to a report on Iran’s parliament from the United States Institute of Peace. It noted that the Islamic Consultative Assembly has "forced a degree of accountability on the executive branch through its powers over the budget, confirmation or impeachment of ministers, and interpellation," and that "has long served as the one public outlet for political differences."

"By Middle East standards, the persistence and vitality of Iran’s Majles has been somewhat remarkable," the report said, especially as a vehicle for local cultural and economic debate.

But the same report also noted how toothless the body is, particularly on foreign policy. Every candidate that runs for parliament is vetted by the Guardian Council. As it is, turnover is constant, and dissenters don’t last long. And unelected leaders often get around the body’s legislative role or strong arm the assembly, particularly on nuclear issues, the report said.

Put bluntly, any power the Constitution grants the parliament is a "dead letter," said Matthew Kroenig, co-author of The Handbook of National Legislatures: A Global Survey.

"It is inconceivable that the Iranian parliament would stand in the way of an agreement that had the support of the government and the Supreme Leader," said Kroenig, professor of international relations at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

Johnson’s office noted that already Iran’s parliament voted on the nuclear negotiations. That came on Jan. 6, when the Islamic Consultative Assembly held a vote on the government’s handling of the nuclear negotiations. But the assembly ultimately sided with the regime and the vote had no repercussions tied to it anyway.

The parliament is under "heavy influence of the Supreme Leader, and in recent years has not acted against his interests," Nader said.

Our ruling

Johnson said, "The Iranian parliament will get to say yes or no" on the nuclear deal.

This is incorrect on two accounts. Experts said the nuclear agreement between the United States and Iran won’t require ratification by Iran’s parliament, the Islamic Consultative Assembly. It’s possible the deal will be contingent on Iran’s ratification of a previous international nuclear agreement, which might require the assembly’s approval, but the body won’t weigh in on the deal currently being worked on.

And even if it did, it would be entirely symbolic, as the assembly is heavily influenced by the Supreme Leader on foreign policy matters.

We rate the statement Mostly False.

Our Sources

Sen. Ron Johnson on Fox News Sunday, March 8, 2015

Email interview with Melinda Schnell, spokeswoman for Johnson, March 8-10, 2015

Email interview with Bernadette Meehan, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, March 8-10, 2015

Email interview with Matthew Kroenig, professor of international relations at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, March 9-10, 2015

Email interview with Alireza Nader, a senior policy analyst at RAND Corporation, March 9, 2015

Email interview Farideh Farhi, an affiliate graduate faculty member at the University of Hawaii at Manoa , March 10, 2015

International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA Safeguards Overview, accessed March 10, 2015

International Atomic Energy Agency, "Implementation of NPT Safeguards Agreement and Relevant Provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran," February 2015

International Atomic Energy Agency, "Communication dated 27 November 2013 received from the EU High Representative concerning the text of the Joint Plan of Action," Nov. 27, 2013

CQ Transcript Wire, "Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Holds a Hearing on Iran Nuclear Negotiations," Jan. 21, 2015

The United States Institute of Peace, "Parliament Debates Nuclear Deal," Jan. 7, 2015

The United States Institute of Peace, The Parliament, accessed March 9, 2015

Foundation for Iranian Studies, Constitution for the Islamic Republic of Iran, accessed March 9, 2015

Congressional Research Service, "Iran: Interim Nuclear Agreement and Talks on a Comprehensive Accord," Feb. 2, 2015

Congressional Research Service, "Iran: U.S. Economic Sanctions and the Authority to Lift Restrictions," Feb. 26, 2015

Congressional Research Service, "Iran’s Nuclear Program: Tehran’s Compliance with International Obligations," April 28, 2014

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