White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest Addresses President Obama's Decision Not to Sign the Iran Sanctions Act

December 15, 2016

   Thank you.  Mark Knoller pointed out this morning that Barack Obama has never, before now, allowed a bill to become law without his signature.  So why did he not sign the Iran Sanctions Extension Act?  And were you aware?  The National Archives tells us it hasn’t happened since December of 1995.

MR. EARNEST:  It's been a long time.  It is -- well, let me go through some basics here, and then I'll explain the decision. We've been saying for quite some time that it is not necessary to extend the Iran Sanctions Act because the executive branch, the Obama administration retains all of the needed executive authority to implement sanctions against Iran.  We have the authority to waive those sanctions, which we did, in the context of the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  We have the ability to implement and ramp up sanctions against Iran for their destabilizing activity in the Middle East, for the development of their missile program, for their support for terrorism, for their lack of respect for basic human rights.  And we have used that authority even since the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon was implemented.

Because of our significant concern about some of those activities, we also have all the executive authority that we need to snap sanctions back into place if Iran violates the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  So we retain all of the authorities that we need to carry out this policy, and that is why we have said for more than a year that the extension of the Iran Sanctions Act was unnecessary. 

Now, at the same time, on the other side, a clean extension of the Iran Sanctions Act, like the one that landed on the President's desk, is consistent with our commitments under the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  That's an important point because the President was rather forward-leaning in making clear that he would veto any effort to undermine the nuclear deal.  This legislation does not undermine the nuclear deal.

So we find ourselves in a situation that I'm not sure that we've encountered in eight years, which is that the bill doesn’t meet the standard of something that we would veto, but it's also not something that the administration believes is necessary.  So the President made a decision to allow that bill to become law without his signature.

But I will say that this decision to allow the bill to become law without the President's signature is also part of a message that we're sending to Congress, and it's simply this:  If Congress does blow up the deal that prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, they're going to have to deal with the consequences.  And the consequences are grave.  And we have seen irresponsible efforts on the part of some members of Congress to advocate for and to write up and submit pieces of legislation that would violate the deal, that would cause the deal to break up, that would, in all likelihood, prompt Iran to kick inspectors out of their country.  These are inspectors who right now are keeping closer tabs on the Iranian nuclear program than any other nuclear program in the world. 

What they would also precipitate by passing legislation that undermines the deal, it would cause the international coalition that we have built to shatter, and it would be very difficult for the United States to make the case to countries like India and China and Japan that they should help us enforce those sanctions. We would have a hard time convincing them to help us enforce those sanctions because the reason that the deal blew up is the fault of the United States Congress. 

So this is a -- President Obama is only in office here for another month.  And after that, Congress will have to deal with the consequences if they choose to pursue irresponsible legislation that would blow up the deal. 

Now, just to be crystal-clear about this, the Iran Sanctions Act is consistent with our commitments under the international agreement, and the President did not veto this bill because it does not undermine the deal.  But there's been plenty of rhetoric and plenty of legislative work done on legislation that would blow up the deal.  And this is a message that if the United States Congress blows up the deal that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, they will have to deal with the grave consequences that ensue.

So thank you for indulging me on the long answer.